WASHINGTON ― One of the most widely supported pieces of legislation across both parties ― criminal justice reform ― is dead in Congress this year.
All year long, proponents of passing sentencing reform pushed to make tweaks to a package of bills in order to garner more support from Republicans. But even after a number of changes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wouldn’t budge.
During the Republican and Democratic national conventions, advocates pushed the issue. At the DNC, mothers who lost their children in racially charged incidents took the stage, and former Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to the racial disparities in the system. “When black defendants in the federal system receive sentences 20 percent longer than their white peers,” he said. “We need a president who will end this policy of over-incarceration.”
Criminal justice reform legislation in both chambers is aimed directly at slashing the country’s skyrocketing prison population. U.S. prisons and jails currently hold 2.3 million Americans, the vast majority of them in state and local facilities. Only 9 percent are in the federal system.
Fifty percent of those incarcerated at the federal level are drug offenders. And out of that population, more than 50 percent are considered low-level drug offenders ― a key distinction. The legislation in Congress, which would affect only federal prisoners, would reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders and give judges greater discretion when sentencing low-level drug crimes.
But on Thursday, McConnell threw water on any hope of bringing it before the Senate in the lame duck session when lawmakers return after the election, chalking it up to disagreement in his caucus.
“We’ve got about three weeks back here after the election,” McConnell said, adding that his priorities are funding the government and an appropriations bill for medical research.
“With regard to the criminal justice issue, it’s very divisive in my conference,” McConnell said. “I’ve got very, very smart, capable people without regard to ideology who have different views on that issue. Whether we can take up something that controversial with that amount of limited time available, I doubt.”
In April, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), along with a coalition of other senators, revised their sentencing reform legislation. The changes ― made in order to bring over more Republicans ― included blocking violent offenders from qualifying for reduced sentences.
A handful of conservatives in McConnell’s caucus have been vocal opponents of doing anything on criminal justice, arguing that crime has increased in the last year and the legislation would send the wrong message to prosecutors. The national homicide rate did slightly rise in 2015, but it was still one of the safest years on record.
If criminal justice reform is going to have any chance of passing, McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan are going to have to get on the same page. And right now, they aren’t.
As lawmakers left for the campaign trail, the two Republican leaders took questions from reporters about the lame duck session they’ll have at the end of the year and what they hoped to tackle during it.
Sentencing reform is still one of Ryan’ priorities, though he failed to start considering the issue in September like he’d originally planned.
“We have more work to do to talk with our members about the merits of criminal justice reform,” Ryan said Thursday. “There are a lot of our members who just have not looked into this issue well enough and it’s those undecided members who have not formed opinions that we’re going to be communicating with in the weeks ahead.”
Pressed on McConnell’s calculation that the legislation is too controversial for Congress to handle in the few weeks it will have left when legislators return in mid-November, Ryan said the House is ahead of the upper chamber in moving criminal justice reform.
“We’re a little farther down the road than the Senate is on this,” Ryan said. “I think it’s good legislation I think its time has come and we’re going to advance this issue as far as we can.”
The two chambers are actually at the same place in the process. Both have passed their packages out of committee, and both chambers have yet to bring anything to the floor ― though either could at any time.