Lawmakers near prison reform deal
Washington – Senators have reached a tentative accord on the first major rewrite of criminal justice sentencing in a generation, but now it’s up to President Donald Trump to decide if it’s worth making a push for the sweeping bipartisan bill during the lame-duck session of Congress.
The package has been a top priority of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and senators presented the ideas to Trump at the White House over the summer. Congressional aides and advocacy groups said the lawmakers are close to an agreement on the legislation, which would boost rehabilitation efforts for federal prisoners and give judges more discretion when sentencing non-violent offenders, particularly for drug offenses.
Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network, a lead advocacy group, said “we’re hoping for a full-throated endorsement” from the president.
“This will be the most significant departure from the failed mandatory minimum policies of the 1990s,” Harris said. With support from a bipartisan coalition of senators – and top law enforcement groups – she said it’s “decision-making time.”
The bill is a rare bipartisan endeavor in a typically log-jammed Congress and has attracted support from a unique coalition of liberal and conservative groups, including the ACLU and groups backed by the political donors Charles and David Koch. Critics say current sentencing guidelines are unfair and have had a lopsided impact on minority communities.
Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries and a longtime champion of prison reforms, said an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police has been critical in generating momentum for the bill.
“You have a lot of people who want to get this done,” Holden said. He said the legislation should help federal inmates be better people when they leave prison than when they entered.
The Senate package overhauls some of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that have been in place since 1994 legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Talks involved a bipartisan group headed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, the GOP chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, and others.
But Trump’s backing remains key to proceeding with any final product.
“Senator Durbin has been negotiating in good faith but there won’t be any agreement on a criminal justice reform compromise unless and until President Trump supports it and asks the Republicans who control both chambers of Congress to move it forward,” said Emily Hampsten, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Democrat.
Grassley said Tuesday that negotiations are still ongoing and he hasn’t yet talked to the White House about the legislation.
“I hope I get a chance to,” Grassley said.
Kushner may play an outsized role in the final outcome after having steered the legislation this far. “History will say this was a man with a mission,” Harris said. “He was really the critical voice that was able to hold the bipartisan alliance together.”
The federal inmate population has been on the decline since 2013, when it peaked at just more than 219,000. The total now stands at about 181,400, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Still, that’s about triple the number of inmates in federal detention 30 years ago.
The House approved a prison reform bill in May, but the Senate package makes additional changes and adds the sentencing component.
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