Is Federal Criminal Justice Reform DOA? – Update for September 19, 2016

We’re still doing a weekly newsletter … we’re just posting pieces of it every day.  The news is fresher this way …


doa160926The New York Times reported Friday that criminal justice reform – most notably the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 – “is effectively dead.”

The Times quoted Senator Richard J. Durbin (Illinois), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate (and one of the prime movers on criminal justice reform) as saying of the failure, “We missed an opportunity.”

Senator John Cornyn (Texas), the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, echoed Sen. Durbin’s frustration: “It is one of the things that makes this a frustrating place to work.”

The Times said there is virtually no chance the Senate will pass the legislation in the waning days of the year, calling SCRA’s failure “a stunning display of dysfunction given the powerful forces arrayed behind legislation meant to provide a second chance for nonviolent offenders facing long prison sentences while also saving tax dollars on prison costs.”

clock160620The House of Representatives still plans to move forward on a floor vote on a package of six criminal justice reform measures this month, according to plans announced in July by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a leading bipartisan coalition behind the legislation, says, “I think we are close, [but] the enemy is the clock.”

This week, the House will dispose of at least 49 bills this week under “suspension of the rules,” which means each bill can only pass with a two-thirds majority vote, debate is limited to 40 minutes on each measure, and no bill up for a vote can be amended. Unfortunately, the criminal justice package is not included on the list.

Among the bills set for action include designating postal facilities, the “District of Columbia Judicial Financial Transparency Act,” “Modernizing Government Travel Act,” “Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act,” and “Cyber Preparedness Act of 2016.”

Still, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, remained optimistic last week that many of the 11 bills passed out of the House Judiciary Committee will be voted on this month. He wrote that Speaker Ryan “expressed earlier this year his desire to see criminal justice reform legislation come to a Floor vote this month, and as Congress reconvenes, it looks as though there is a strong possibility that it will.”

Microsoft Word - PD8L Copy Revised.docHowever, Adam Brandon – president of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks – warned last week that “the window of opportunity for passage is rapidly closing on three criminal justice reform bills — the Sentencing Reform [and Corrections] Act (H.R. 3713), the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act (H.R. 759) and the Criminal Code Improvement Act (H.R. 4002) — all of which have already passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously… With the House set to adjourn on Sept. 30 and the Senate set to follow suit a week later, [these bills] look increasingly likely to become casualties of the race for the exits as lawmakers head home to campaign for re-election.”

The Marshall Report, a criminal justice reform group, said today “the vaunted bipartisan drive to enact federal criminal justice reform is not quite dead. But its pulse is faint.”

Supporters of reform are engaged in last-ditch lobbying, hoping to convince House lawmakers that reform is a matter of public safety and fiscal prudence. But, as The Marshall Report put it, “Gloomier advocates say that even if Ryan delivers in the House, it would take a near-miracle to get anything bold through the Senate.”

Some reformers think the most Congress might pass is a reprieve for a small group of crack cocaine offenders. “Back in 2010, Congress reduced sentences for inmates who were punished under a law that treated crack cocaine far more severely than powder cocaine,” The Marshall Report said. “An estimated 5,800 people convicted before 2010 remain imprisoned. Congress could make these prisoners retroactively eligible for a judicial review of their sentences.”


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