CHN: Criminal Justice Bill Remains in Limbo

With time running out for the 115th Congress, the fate of bipartisan criminal justice reform is unclear. The First Step Act, sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), among others, would correct some of the inequities in the federal criminal justice system that were caused, in part, by anti-crime legislation passed by Congress in the 1990s and signed by President Clinton.

An updated version of the First Step Act, introduced in the Senate on Nov. 15, would reduce mandatory sentences for some drug-related felonies, make more offenders eligible for early release and provide more funding for anti-recidivism programs. Perhaps most notably, it would end the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine charges – which disproportionately affect African Americans – for some 2,600 federal inmates convicted years ago.

The revised bill has the support of some groups on both the right and left, and although supporters say it would garner as many as 70 votes in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has not allowed it to come to the floor for a vote. He argues that the Senate needs to focus its time on judicial nominations and appropriations bills. McConnell could also be responding to some of the more conservative members of his caucus – perhaps most notably Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who has inaccurately stated that the legislation would result in the early release of violent felons and sex offenders from prison. The House approved an earlier, more conservative version of the legislation in May, but House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has assured Senate sponsors that if the Senate acts, the House could quickly pass the Senate version of the legislation, thus negating the need for a conference committee.

Members of the human needs community are somewhat divided on the measure. Some support it as a modest and incremental improvement to the federal criminal justice system. Others note that it simply does not go far enough – for example, it does not retroactively apply its sentencing reform provisions to people convicted of anything other than crack convictions and it prevents some individuals from benefiting from some provisions based on citizenship and immigration status. If the legislation does not pass before Congress adjourns, it would have to be refiled next year, with the legislative process starting anew. Supporters fear bipartisan compromise could then be elusive; the new Democratic-led House may demand a more far-reaching version, which in turn could peel Senate Republicans away from the bill. For more information about the revised First Step Act, click here.

criminal justice