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July 21, 2016

Should we all share Senator Grassley's optimism about federal statutory sentencing reform's prospects?

Long time readers know my hopefulness about significant federal sentencing reform moving through the current Congress has waxed and waned, especially as key leaders and members of both houses of Congress have expressed more or less optimism about the prospects for draft legislation getting full votes.  And, as this post a few weeks ago revealed, I have lately been gespecially pessimistic about the prospects for Congress to summon the spirit or find the time to get any reform bill to President Obama's desk.

But this new local article from Iowa, headlined "U.S. Sens. Grassley, Scott optimistic on sentencing reform," prompts me to become a bit more hopeful again. Here are excerpts:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, joined by a fellow Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, is expressing optimism about the prospects for passing federal criminal sentencing reform legislation.

The senior Iowa senator spoke at a news conference Wednesday at the Des Moines International Airport with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor last week in which he described being targeted by police because of he is black.  Scott was stopped by law enforcement seven times in one year while he was an elected official, sometimes for speeding, but other times simply because he was driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or other insignificant reasons, he said.

Scott saluted Grassley's work Wednesday on justice reform issues, saying the proposed legislation has attracted a broad coalition from the far left to the far right.  "This is an unusual time when we seem to have the stars aligning," he added. He described the legislation as serving the best interests of communities as well as individuals.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is authored by Grassley and co-authored by Scott.  The package would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and would expand prison programs intended to reduce the likelihood that inmates will re-offend.  It would also reduce sentences for inmates who successfully complete those programs. In addition, the bill would make changes to the federal justice system, such as allowing people convicted of certain crimes as juveniles to expunge their criminal records if they turn their lives around.

The bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Grassley, and is awaiting action by the full Senate.  Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has announced the House will consider several separate pieces of legislation to address criminal justice reform.  Grassley said the House proposals include addressing such issues as asset forfeiture, but he expressed confidence any differences can be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee.

Grassley said the legislation responds to Iowans who have expressed concerns about a rising federal prison population, costs of housing them and the possibility that some people with relatively minor criminal backgrounds are receiving lengthy sentences intended for hardcore criminals.  "Successfully addressing the different perspectives has not been an easy task, especially if we want to ensure that career criminals and the most violent offenders are not allowed to wreak havoc once again in their communities," Grassley said.  "The work that we started more than a year ago has been a thoughtful, bipartisan deliberation that will promote opportunities to reduce recidivism while protecting our communities from violent career criminals."

My prior post expressed fear that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was essentially dead in Congress, but I am certain Senator Grassley knows a lot more than I do about whether it may still have some legislative life left in it. I sure hope so.

July 21, 2016 at 10:55 AM | Permalink


I'm a pessimist due to the calendar. The Senate is out of session until after Labor Day. When they return, they will be in session for only five weeks. After the election, they will return for another five weeks. The House is currently only scheduled to be in session for four weeks after Labor Day before recessing for the election. After the election, the House will return for a total of four weeks. Given that, as always, Congress is behind schedule on the appropriations process, my hunch is that September will primarily be about appropriations. I think that the elections are likely to blow up any chance of passing sentencing reform this cycle although it is always possible that something gets done in November.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 21, 2016 12:21:18 PM

The wheels of justice grind ever so slowlyyyyyy!
The Senate will talk and then talk some more and then go to lunch or take vacations or whatever the hell they do. Very little seems to ever actually happen in terms of criminal reform, mandatory minimums and the like, it's all just TALK .
Mean while, real people sit in real prisons for really long times waiting for something REAL to happen. Enough talk, let's see some action!

Posted by: kat | Jul 21, 2016 5:47:21 PM

I suspect Grassley may be talking about this because he's in a surprisingly close race and I'm not sure his constituents think very highly of the Garland (and other appointment) stalling. I'm not as pessimistic about it because I don't see it being so much a partisan issue as an "old guy" issue. All the old farts like Grassley that are responsible for the drug war and PRLA and VCCA and VAWA all the other ridiculous federal overcriminalization crap are having a hard time backing away from it.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jul 21, 2016 8:37:19 PM

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