Sunday, May 1, 2016

Senators revise controversial criminal justice reform package

Top senators have been quietly revising a controversial overhaul of criminal justice laws. The recently unveiled compromise addresses conservative criticisms that could have derailed the bill in the Senate, reported
Influential Senate Democrats and Republicans held a news conference trumpeting the changes and to try and show a renewed sense of momentum behind the long-stalled legislation that tries to ease mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.
“Obviously, reaching a consensus hasn’t been easy,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “But as you can see, we have a remarkable group of senators supporting the bill. We believe that it truly addresses in a bipartisan way the concerns that had been brought forward.”
The original version passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 15-5 in October, but tough-on-crime Senate conservatives — led by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — warned that it would inadvertently release felons with violent criminal records early from prison. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was also a vocal critic of the bill — which the first endorser of his presidential campaign in the Senate, Mike Lee of Utah, helped draft — but has been quiet lately as he’s been campaigning.
The compromise won’t satisfy critics like Cotton, but nevertheless has been enough to sway a handful of other Republicans and to get influential organizations, such as the National District Attorneys Association, on board.
For instance, one section of the original legislation to reduce enhanced mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted under the Armed Career Criminals Act has been eliminated. The bill also now says that other reduced mandatory minimum sentences won’t apply retroactively for anyone who has been convicted of any serious violent felony. And it adds enhanced mandatory sentences for crimes involving Fentanyl, an opioid drug.
The influential district attorneys group wrote to Senate leaders earlier this week, saying the revised version “filters out the truly dangerous individuals” so they don't benefit from the reduced mandatory minimum sentences.
But the revisions weren’t enough to persuade some Republicans whom backers targeted. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, seen by some proponents as a potential supporter, argued that the revisions would still allow serious drug traffickers to be released early from prison.
“Proponents of this criminal-leniency bill have waged a disinformation campaign because they simply want to reduce the number of people in federal prison,” Perdue said.
That prompted FreedomWorks, one of the major conservative outside groups backing the Senate measure, to fire back at Perdue, calling the Georgia senator’s comments on the legislation “misleading and hypocritical.”
The next step for the Senate coalition behind the bill will be to persuade Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take up the legislation this year. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has supported criminal justice legislation moving on a parallel track in the House, and the White House backs the effort.
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