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May 16, 2018

A fittingly depressing account of the current state and potential fate of federal statutory criminal justice reform

This NPR piece from earlier this week, headlined "White House Adviser Jared Kushner Pushes Prison Reform Bill Forward," reviews the state of federal proposals in Congress with a few fitting flourishes about the continuing slog to get any form of criminal justice reform passes. These emphasized passages in particular prompted this post:

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST: There is some movement on the bipartisan effort to overhaul the nation's federal prisons.  The House Judiciary Committee recently advanced a bill to improve prison conditions, and the White House is also getting involved. Here to talk more about the effort is NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.  Hey there.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So you've been covering plans it seems like for years, plans to change, upgrade, update the U.S. prison system. Get us up to speed.  Where do those plans stand?

JOHNSON: Well, last week the House Judiciary Committee voted 25 to 5 to approve legislation called the FIRST STEP Act.  That bill would make life a little bit easier for pregnant inmates. And it would offer programs prisoners could take to earn good time credits, credits for possible early release.... I'm hearing the bill could get a vote from the full U.S. House of Representatives next week before the Memorial Day holiday.

KELLY: All right, so that sounds promising.  But I gather there is a catch 'cause you're talking about the House and the Senate may be in a really different place.

JOHNSON: Mary Louise, there's a big catch.  For some justice advocates this legislation in the House is actually a step backwards, not forwards ... [as] this is not the same plan we've been talking about for six or seven years since the Obama White House. That bigger plan would touch tens of thousands of prisoners and change some of those tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, actually reducing the number of people who go behind bars in the first place.  What the House is doing now is a much smaller bite of the apple.  And people in the Senate, including the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, Chuck Grassley, are now holding out for a lot more....

JOHNSON: Yeah. So [Jared] Kushner since he got to the White House has been holding roundtable discussions about this.  One of the people he's trying to partner with is the Texas senator John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership.  Cornyn has introduced a more modest version of prison reform as of last week.  It's a kind of a companion to the House plan we've been talking about.  And together Kushner and Cornyn are going to try to push the Senate to take up this legislation even though the leader of the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, thinks that's a bad idea in an election year.  Now, experts who've been following these issues for a long time thinks it's - think it's going to be a tough slog, lots of talking, lots of energy. But in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done.

KELLY: Wow. It sounds like you may have many more years to come of following person reform.

To review, then: there have been reform plans in Congress for years, and the leading "bigger plan" is one "we've been talking about for six or seven years" (but have not really even gotten close to passing).  But now that a seemingly viable smaller reform plan in the form of the FIRST STEP ACT (which, in fact, will "touch tens of thousands of prisoners") looks like it might make it through the House of Representatives this week, it appears Senate leaders are going to blocks its progress for various reasons.  Consequently, smart folks are predicting "lots of talking, lots of energy" to no effect, because "in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done."  But at least Carrie Johnson (who is a terrific reporter) will likely have "many more years" to cover this particular story of congressional dysfunction. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 16, 2018 at 09:30 PM | Permalink

Comments

Did people see the post below here about diversion programs? CJ reform has already been enacted and practiced.

Posted by: David Behar | May 16, 2018 9:42:12 PM

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