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December 6, 2015

Can and will Prez Obama effectively help get a federal sentencing reform bill to his desk?

Justice-refThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Washington Post report, headlined "Obama convenes meeting on criminal justice reform to buoy bipartisanship," discussing a meeting Prez Obama convened with congressional leaders to talk about how to turn reform bills into new sentencing laws. Here the details:

President Obama convened a meeting of more than a dozen congressional Republicans and Democrats Thursday, in an effort to bolster a fragile bipartisan coalition working to reform the criminal justice system.

The House and Senate have been working to craft legislation to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, as well as to revamp aspects of federal incarceration. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a comprehensive bill on a bipartisan 15-5 vote in October; the House Judiciary Committee has passed five separate measures by voice vote in recent weeks.

But there are a few major differences between the two chambers’ approaches. Most significantly, one of the House bills — the Criminal Code Improvement Act — would require prosecutors in cases as wide-ranging as food tainting and corporate pollution to prove that defendants “knew, or had reason to believe, the conduct was unlawful,” otherwise known as “mens rea.”

That measure has angered many Democrats, who argue that it could block criminal prosecution of some corporate entities — including those owned by Koch Industries, which has helped mobilize conservative support for the overall reform effort. Obama specifically asked lawmakers to remove the provision, according to individuals familiar with the meeting, though House Republicans argued that it was a critical component for conservatives.

“We believe that invites a lot of controversy and delay into our agreement, and the House feels just the opposite,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who attended the White House meeting and co-authored the Senate criminal justice bill.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), another co-author of the bill, said that while “nothing was decided” in the more than hour-and-a-half session, he was “very optimistic” after participating in it. “I think it was all a very positive, bipartisan, bicameral, executive, legislative meeting,” Cornyn said, adding that although “there was not consensus” on that issue, there might be a way to work it out in a conference between the two chambers. “But I think part of the message was, ‘Let’s take the things where there is consensus, get that done.’ ”

A spokeswoman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) declined to comment on the meeting. She noted that the House panel has passed bills on issues including modifying sentencing guidelines and eliminating statutes in the U.S. Code that subject violators to criminal penalties for trivial conduct. The committee will take up measures on prisons, civil asset forfeiture, and criminal procedures and policing in the coming weeks, she added.

Durbin said “we have a good chance” of passing legislation in early 2016, so lawmakers can work out their differences “and send it to the president before midpoint of next year.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who helped craft the Senate bill and also met with the president, said the meeting was less about “the path forward” than how to get the two competing proposals brought up for floor votes in the House and Senate.

Obama also pressed for specific numbers on how many individuals would benefit overall from the two proposals, people familiar with the meeting said, because the proposals introduce new sentences even as they reduce some mandatory minimums.

Senator Durbin's comments reinforce my understand that there is a good chance that the full House and Senate will likely vote in January or February on the various reform bills that have already passed the Judiciary Committees. Such votes would pave the way for harmonizing efforts on the bills and perhaps enactment sometime in Spring 2016. I think the commnts coming after this meanign from not only Senator Durbin but also Senator Cronyn lead me to have continued (tempered) optimism that this will get done in some form before Prez Obama leaves the Oval Office.

That all said, the dispute over menas rea reform could throw a wrench into this process, as could various other political developments. Especially if the legislative process drags into the summer, I think whomever emerges as a GOP leader through the primary season could end up having an impact on the sentencing reform debate. In addition, as both the title and contents of this post suggests, Prez Obama also is a critical and complicated figure in all this. Cajoling Congress effectively could help keep the legislative process, but too much advocacy or criticism on sentencing issues coming from the White House could upset an already delicate political balance in this arena.

December 6, 2015 at 10:05 AM | Permalink


Look at those pictures. Mentally crippled lawyer dumbasses. Demented crackpot, not a lawyer, on the bottom.

We are ruled by a dementocracy. The horrifying criminal results are explained by the low mental ability of this hierarchy. It will never surrender power. It may change the faces to appease the wrath of the public. But no substantive change is ever likely until they are eradicated.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 6, 2015 1:31:04 PM

Tom DeLay was one of those who held up progress in Congress with various tactics. Dennis Hastert was of the same ilk.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 7, 2015 5:43:30 PM

Tom DeLay was one of those who held up progress in Congress with various tactics. Dennis Hastert was of the same ilk.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 7, 2015 5:43:39 PM

Hello I'm a concerned citizen and student,however I am ashamed of our leaders whom I look up to and admire on how they feel on prison reform. This supposed to be a country that gives second chances .because the men and women that are on the federal level need to be reunited with their families. They do .deserve a second chance and I would like to see our congress open there eyes to all the families that hasbeen broken up by the out rageous sentences they have received .. to senator majority leader Mr. McConnell please do the right thing, and add to the greatness of our country so the world can see that this is a country of great integrity and high morals. Thanks Obama

Posted by: jarnell washington | Feb 1, 2016 12:42:12 AM

One last comment its obvious that those who oppose federal reform have not a clue of how it feels to be locked up and have key thrown away on you....until they feel the lose of family and have your love ones turn there back on you and parents and friends die off then and only then you will consider their pain... Pass the bill give them justice

Posted by: jarnell washington | Feb 1, 2016 12:50:02 AM

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