Pres­sure builds for prison re­form in lame-duck ses­sion

Sen­tenc­ing changes di­vide Se­nate GOP

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAVE BOYER AND ALEX SWOYER

Pres­sure is build­ing on Se­nate Re­pub­li­can lead­ers to ap­prove ma­jor re­duc­tions to fed­eral crim­i­nal sen­tences be­fore the end of the year, though some key law­mak­ers in the party say they are not ea­ger to re­ward crim­i­nals with less prison time.

All sides agree on some changes, such as pro­mot­ing the use of half­way houses, ex­pand­ing the prison in­dus­tries pro­gram and boost­ing in-prison men­tor­ing. But things get more com­pli­cated when sen­tenc­ing changes for drug of­fend­ers are added.

Pres­i­dent Trump is press­ing Re­pub­li­cans to take ac­tion this year, and the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union is run­ning ads in Ken­tucky de­mand­ing that Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell sched­ule the leg­is­la­tion for a floor vote.

Mr. McCon­nell said that he will go where the votes are within the Re­pub­li­can Party.

“We will be whip­ping that to see whether — what the con­sen­sus is — if there is a con­sen­sus in our con­fer­ence about not only the sub­stance, but the tim­ing of mov­ing for­ward with that par­tic­u­lar piece of leg­is­la­tion,” Mr. McCon­nell told re­porters.

Congress is sched­uled to be in ses­sion un­til mid-De­cem­ber, and the next week and a half is likely to be dom­i­nated by ac­tion on spend­ing bills to keep the gov­ern­ment afloat for fis­cal 2019.

With a farm bill also on the must-do list, as well as con­firm­ing Trump ju­di­cial nom­i­nees, there is a nar­row win­dow for ac­tion on other leg­is­la­tion.

Mr. Trump said this week that he thinks the sup­port is there, and he will con­vey that to Mr. McCon­nell.

“We’re talk­ing to him, and we’re do­ing a [vote] count,” the pres­i­dent said. “But from ev­ery­thing that we’re look­ing at right now, we have more than enough. So, at a cer­tain point, we’ll have a talk.”

Speak­ing in Biloxi, Mis­sis­sippi, at a fo­rum with state and fed­eral lead­ers last Mon­day, the pres­i­dent said the pro­posal would help for­mer in­mates re-en­ter so­ci­ety as pro­duc­tive, law-abid­ing cit­i­zens.

“Com­mu­ni­ties will be safer by help­ing in­mates gain the skills that they need to ob­tain jobs and stay out of prison after they are re­leased,” he said.

The House has passed the prison re­form piece of the leg­is­la­tion, known as the First Step Act. A ver­sion of that bill also has cleared the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

But it’s the push by many law­mak­ers to add sen­tenc­ing changes that is com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, at least within the Re­pub­li­can Party.

Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, Iowa Re­pub­li­can, bro­kered a com­pro­mise deal that would cut some manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences for fed­eral in­mates.

Mr. Grass­ley said sup­port from Mr. Trump, who has built a rep­u­ta­tion as a law-and-or­der pres­i­dent, is cru­cial to get­ting the bill ap­proved.

Re­pub­li­cans in­clud­ing Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Carolina are also on board.

But a key group of con­ser­va­tives re­mains op­posed.

“My cen­tral con­cern is that we should not be re­leas­ing vi­o­lent crim­i­nals,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Re­pub­li­can, told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

“I fully sup­port re­duc­ing manda­tory min­i­mum prison sen­tences for non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers, but for me, I draw the line at vi­o­lence, so I am work­ing with the bill spon­sors to try to make sure vi­o­lent crim­i­nals are not in­cluded.”

Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Re­pub­li­can, said he can get be­hind the bill’s prison mea­sures but wants to tackle the sen­tenc­ing changes sep­a­rately.

“If we don’t do this right, the First Step Act is go­ing to be the ‘First Step in it Act,’ and we need to take our time on this. The bill changed dra­mat­i­cally. There needs to be a hear­ing,” he said.

The bill would al­low judges to sen­tence be­low manda­tory min­i­mums for cer­tain non­vi­o­lent drug of­fend­ers and re­ward time cred­its to low-risk pris­on­ers who par­tic­i­pate in re­cidi­vism re­duc­tion pro­grams.

“There is no ques­tion that this is go­ing to al­low fen­tanyl traf­fick­ers to get out early,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Here we are break­ing our necks to try to stop the opi­oid abuse and we are go­ing to let these peo­ple out early.”

The leg­is­la­tion also would elim­i­nate en­hanced sen­tenc­ing for an in­di­vid­ual with a first-time of­fense who car­ries a firearm and in­stead ap­ply en­hanced manda­tory sen­tences to of­fend­ers who did time for prior vi­o­lent crime or drug of­fenses.

Sen. Tom Cot­ton, Arkansas Re­pub­li­can, is also not a fan of rush­ing through the bill.

In an op-ed for USA To­day last month, he wrote that con­sid­er­ing a crim­i­nal jus­tice over­haul dur­ing a lame-duck ses­sion is a “mis­guided ef­fort to let se­ri­ous felons out of prison.”

But ad­vo­cates for an over­haul such as In­i­mai Chet­tiar, di­rec­tor of the Bren­nan Cen­ter Jus­tice Pro­gram, say the sen­tenc­ing mea­sures added to the bill are mod­est.

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