A long-gestating effort to reform the nation’s criminal sentencing laws may have finally turned a corner in Congress, with key help from some politically vulnerable GOP senators.
Senate leaders on Thursday unveiled a sweeping bipartisan bill they hope can squeeze through a closing window for congressional action during this election year, following progress in the House on the issue and a public push from President Obama.
The effort unites the most powerful members of both parties. GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has signaled his support, along with Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas and GOP Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa.
Democratic support comes from senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 2 and No. 3 Democrats, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The compromise has taken months to stitch together before its authors could convince senate leaders to allow a floor vote. To do so, proponents made tweaks to satisfy tough-on-crime conservatives but, notably, to politically vulnerable Republicans.
That includes Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is locked into a tight bid for re-election and represents a state whose biggest city is one of the country’s most violent.
He first wanted changes to steer savings from the bill to combat gang violence, but eventually said he decided the Illinois state incarceration cost estimate of $60,000 per inmate per year wasn’t worth it for nonviolent criminals. He dismissed any effect on his re-election.
“Over the Easter holiday, we had 38 shootings,” Kirk told AMI Newswire. “My exclusive concern is to look at a system that isn’t working.”
Rob Portman of Ohio, who also faces a tough re-election, was so convinced that he signed on as a co-sponsor. He said Thursday he wants more provisions aimed at reducing recidivism but is a supporter.
The bill’s thrust is to revise mandatory minimum laws for nonviolent offenders to grant judges more leniency in sentencing, and to relieve overcrowding. Mandatory life prison sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders would be eliminated, for example. It also aims to reduce recidivism by including programs to help convicts re-enter society.
Proponents point to the nation’s swollen federal prison population – 215,000 today, up from 25,000 in 1980 – which includes a far more disproportionate number of African-Americans. The bill has been endorsed by the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA).
The effort had been stalled since last fall, under the weight of conservative criticism that it was too lenient. Several changes were made in response, such as dropping a provision that could have allowed reduced sentences for criminals in possession of a firearm.
Durbin said while the overall vote-building was laborious, it eventually wasn’t difficult to convince politically vulnerable senators to jump on board.
“This is such a strong bipartisan of an issue, and so timely, that I’m sure many of them felt it was to their advantage to be part of the effort,” he said.
The bill still faces opposition from some outside conservative groups as well as some Republicans such as Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a former federal prosecutor.
It also faces a crowded and closing congressional calendar. Both chambers are in session for only 18 days in May and June, before political conventions in July, followed by the traditional August recess and the fall campaign season.
But Cornyn and Grassley said they are confident that their effort will succeed, since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is looking to schedule legislation that can pass.
“Then it just becomes a matter of allocating scarce resources – floor time,” Cornyn said.
At the White House, Obama used his weekly radio address last Saturday to push for the bill.
“The reason we have so many more people in prison than any other developed country is not because we have more criminals,” Obama said. “It’s because we have criminal justice policies, including unfair sentencing laws, that need to be reformed.”