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March 7, 2016

Is the Supreme Court fight already starting to "doom" federal statutory sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is my first reaction to this commentary piece authored by Inimai Chettiar from the Brennan Center for Justice which carries the headline "Don't Lock Up Prison Reform: Congress' fight over the Supreme Court shouldn't doom desperately needed sentencing reform." Here are excerpts (which includes something of a status report from Congress):

With a heated partisan battle over the future of the Supreme Court entering a stalemate, and some Democrats threatening to shut down the Senate, many are starting to expect nothing will get done in Congress this year.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  There is one topic on which lawmakers can act, even in this bitter climate.  The same Senate Judiciary Committee members sparring over the Supreme Court nomination process will soon announce a long-awaited compromise on a bill to help reduce America's prison population.

Can our nation's leaders put aside their differences to help resolve one of the largest crises facing our country?  We certainly hope so.  The bill would be the largest congressional action on criminal justice reform in a generation, and a rare attempt at cooperation across party lines.  Lawmakers should not allow partisan bickering over the next Supreme Court justice to destroy a chance to fix a system we all agree is not working.  Congress must act fast, in this rare area of bipartisan accord, to pass sentencing reform....

Much has been learned in the last 25 years about who should be locked up and for how long.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recalibrates sentencing laws to implement these lessons....

Last month, Sens. Tom Cotton and Jeff Sessions raised concerns the legislation would jeopardize public safety.  In response, a group of nationally prominent police chiefs and prosecutors — the men and women who protect our safety every day — explained how the bill would actually help reduce crime.

Now, co-sponsors Sens. John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee are revising the bill to address these anxieties.  At least two major changes are expected.  One would remove a provision from the bill that would have reduced mandatory minimums for repeat felons caught with a firearm.  Another would limit current prisoners' ability to seek reduced sentences under the new law if they committed certain serious crimes.  To many progressive advocates, these changes significantly reduce the breadth of the bill.

But even if there's a compromise bill, the next step is getting it to the floor for a vote.  Last week, Grassley met with President Barack Obama to tell him the Judiciary Committee will not hold a hearing or vote if he puts forth a Supreme Court nominee. It's rumored that some Democrats would allow the sentencing bill to falter if Republicans try to block a nominee.

But it is a false choice to pit sentencing reform against a Supreme Court battle.  Accord on one shouldn't be overridden by combat on the other....  Congress has passed legislation during other confirmation clashes.  While Justice Elena Kagan's nomination was pending in 2010, Congress passed a series of significant bills including sanctions against Iran, the Dodd-Frank Act, and another criminal justice law called the Fair Sentencing Act.  In 2005, a year that saw the confirmation of two new Supreme Court justices (Roberts and Alito), Congress passed a free trade act.

Both parties have a decision to make. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must decide whether to bring the measure to the Senate floor.  His Democratic counterparts Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi must choose whether to bridge the divide, even if temporarily.  We will soon see how much the parties really care about getting government to work — and how much their cares about over-incarceration are more than just words.

Our politicians will not be able to sell the notion that the people's business should come to a complete halt for the sake of election-year posturing.  The time has finally come for criminal justice reform.  With Congress at a flashpoint over the Supreme Court, bipartisan cooperation to act matters now more than ever.

March 7, 2016 at 12:33 PM | Permalink


Given that I had already figured this effort was dead I don't see how Scalia's death has any bearing on the outcome.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 7, 2016 1:20:36 PM

It actually has moved along a little bit. The House put the post-conviction portion of its bill HR 759, out of committee on February 11 and Sensenbrenner(!!!???) signed on as a co-sponsor.

I find this amusing in a sick way because the congressional/Senate plan for the judicial nomination is to do nothing. So why can't they do other stuff?

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Mar 7, 2016 4:13:20 PM

Also, I hope the current thing does fail. It's such a half-assed, useless pile of crap anyway. Need to let some younger legislators that don't have Byzantine notions of justice work on it next year or the year after.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Mar 7, 2016 4:16:22 PM

I basically agree with the first comment. It's an election year. Hard to see something that major being passed at this point now even if Scalia didn't die. Realistically, we have to see how the new President and (if things change there) new Congress will handle it. I don't know the details enough to say but inclined to believe the last comment too. Maybe, as you say, the law net would push things forward somewhat. Hard to tell.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 7, 2016 9:41:08 PM

I agree that nomination has nithing to di wuth getting the bill to the floor.

I also agree wuth Fat Bastard in that, the bill will have so many exclusions the benefits may be lost. Mostly his point in getting younger and different views in office is spot on.

Grassley ( Iowa loves him ) is 86 yrs old. Where are you going to go and get a job of any value at that age. i dont care if he jogs daily and eats triple cleaned oats. His views and knowedge iof whats going on in the country now, are way behind times.

We have to impose age limits and term limits on these guys. This includes all aspects of every federal job. Yes, supreme court justices as well, congress senators, district, circuit judges and Ausa as well. How the hell can the country run at all with stagnent minds.

Tell me one job that a person 80 + yrs old can get hired, besides govnt work. Enough said.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Mar 8, 2016 1:20:26 AM

Haha, MidWestGuy, Grassley is exactly who I was thinking of when I wrote that about younger legislators. I was startled that Sensenbrenner signed onto HR 759, as it is more liberal than the Senate portion of the SRCA, and I put Sensenbrenner in the same general slot as Grassley.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Mar 8, 2016 10:27:09 AM

Haha, MidWestGuy, Grassley is exactly who I was thinking of when I wrote that about younger legislators. I was startled that Sensenbrenner signed onto HR 759, as it is more liberal than the Senate portion of the SRCA, and I put Sensenbrenner in the same general slot as Grassley.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Mar 8, 2016 10:27:15 AM

86 tacks on a few years.

Born: September 17, 1933 (age 82), New Hartford, IA.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 8, 2016 4:14:12 PM

I am leaning towards agreeing with all of you. It seems they are all too busy to decide on such a crucial topic. Its been 50 odd years this injustice in the system has been going on, why not wait til the election is over & get serious about peoples lives that deserve a second chance. Maybe Cruz & Cotton will get caught doing some nasty no no's in the meantime & be out of the picture!

Posted by: karin wall | Mar 9, 2016 8:07:45 AM

Countless lives are in the hands of politicians who are in office simply because they happened to be the lesser of the evils presented to the voters. Most of them are completely out of touch with what the people feel is important. Maybe a prerequisite for ea. One would be to spend a year of their lives in prison for every lie they have told the people,or for every time they have broken the law. A year in prison to wait for them to decide if they want to go do the job they are being paid to do. Shame on our political parties.(both)to even think 5, 10, 15 yrs to life in a cage is acceptable for a first offense. And no possibility for parole.time is no consequence for them.

Posted by: Gayle clay | May 13, 2016 6:43:40 PM

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