Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly to announce support for FIRST STEP Act with sentencing provisions, greatly increasing its prospects for swift passage

This new CNN article, headlined "President Trump to announce support for criminal justice overhaul proposal," reports on encouraging news regarding efforts to get major federal criminal justice reform enacted in coming weeks. Here are the details:

President Donald Trump is expected to throw his support behind bipartisan criminal justice legislation during an event at the White House on Wednesday, two sources close to the process said.

Trump is scheduled to announce on Wednesday that he is supporting the latest iteration of the First Step Act, a bill that his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has been working to craft and build support for alongside a bipartisan group of senators, the sources said.  The President will be joined by supporters of the legislation during the White House event, the sources said.

Supporters of the measure expect that Trump's explicit backing will help propel the prison and sentencing overhaul bill through Congress.  The President has wavered on whether to throw his support behind the bill in recent months, but the sources said he was swayed to back the bill on Tuesday after meeting with Kushner.

Trump's support came after several law enforcement associations announced their backing for the legislation.  The National District Attorneys Association, which represents 2,500 district attorneys and 40,000 assistant district attorneys, became the latest law enforcement organization to support the bill, according to a letter the group's president addressed to Trump....

The prosecutors' association's support for the legislation came on the heels of backing from several other law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which also penned a letter of support to Trump.

The Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs of America also withdrew their opposition to the legislation, writing in a letter to Kushner dated Tuesday that they "endorse the objectives of the First Step Act" and the legislation "strengthens how Federal prisoners may be integrated into the community and set on a path to live positive and productive lives."  Less than two weeks ago, the groups wrote to Kushner to say they could not back the bill.

Opposition from since-ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, in particular, served as key stumbling blocks to advancing the legislation, with both touting opposition within law enforcement circles -- an argument that is quickly fading as groups back the proposal.  Sources close to the process said the support from law enforcement associations is key to advancing the measure and securing the President's full-throated support.

Proponents of the bill made several changes to it to win backing from law enforcement groups, including stiffer sentencing guidelines for fentanyl-related offenses and a compromise provision to modestly expand the definition of a serious violent crime.

Now the question is whether enough Democrats will rally to support the compromise package or hold out for a more ambitious overhaul of the nation's sentencing laws. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who had announced his opposition to a previous version of the bill because he felt it did not go far enough, said Tuesday that he is still looking to get more changes to the bill.

Though I am not going to count any sentencing reform chickens until they are hatched and have been signed into law, I am inclined to start predicting that we are on the verge of a remarkable federal criminal justice reform achievement that will be the most consequential statutory reform in nearly 35 years.  (I am also inclined to recall pieces from late 2016, like the one blogged here, that astutely suggested federal criminal justice reform might still be a real possibility in the Trump era.)  I am not quite yet ready to start patting a whole lot of folks on the back, but I am getting close to wanting to start celebrating the culmination of five years of very hard work by lots of folks inside and outside the Beltway.  Fingers crossed.

Some of many prior related posts:

November 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Latest push for passage of FIRST STEP Act with sentencing reforms now afoot

The New York Times and CNN are reporting this evening on the latest chapter in efforts to enact significant federal criminal justice reforms.  This lengthy New York Times piece is headlined "Bipartisan Sentencing Overhaul Moves Forward, but Rests on Trump," and here are excerpts:

A bipartisan group of senators has reached a tentative deal on the most substantial rewrite of the nation’s sentencing and prison laws in a generation, giving judges more latitude to sidestep mandatory minimum sentences and easing drug sentences that have incarcerated African-Americans at much higher rates than white offenders.  The lawmakers believe they can get the measure to President Trump during the final weeks of the year, if the president embraces it.

The compromise would eliminate the so-called stacking regulation that makes it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense; expand the “drug safety valve” allowing judges to sidestep mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders; and shorten mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, according to draft text of the bill obtained by The New York Times.

It would also retroactively extend a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine signed into law in 2010, potentially affecting thousands of drug offenders serving lengthy sentences....

The support of the famously mercurial Mr. Trump is by no means guaranteed.  But if they can secure an endorsement, senators say they can move quickly on the kind of bipartisan achievement that has eluded Mr. Trump — and bedeviled senators and outside advocates of the overhaul for years....

If Mr. Trump supports the package, senators will still be up against a rapidly closing legislative window — Congress is set to break in mid-December — and certain opposition from conservative Republicans in both the Senate and the House. Democrats could also throw up roadblocks if liberals think they could get a better deal once Democrats take control of the House....

Lawmakers may have also gotten a boost with the departure of Jeff Sessions as attorney general last week. Mr. Sessions had used his post to order federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences for crime suspects, reversing Obama-era efforts to ease such penalties for some nonviolent drug offenders.  And he vigorously opposed legislative compromise, going head-to-head not only with Mr. Grassley but also with Mr. Kushner.

Mr. Kushner has had several meetings with Matthew G. Whitaker, the new acting attorney general, who has signaled that he is open to the changes.  The effort could be revived in the next Congress if he and allies are unable to succeed in the short term. Mr. Kushner has also traveled with Vice President Mike Pence in recent days to brief the vice president on the latest developments, the administration official said.

This CNN report is headlined "Senators, Kushner prepare to launch sentencing overhaul push in lame duck session," and starts and ends this way:

White House officials and a bipartisan group of senators are mounting an ambitious effort to push criminal justice legislation through Congress by the end of the year, four sources close to the process told CNN.

But first, Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, who has been leading the White House's prison and sentencing overhaul push, must ensure the President is on board with the latest version of the measure.  Kushner is slated to meet with Trump on Tuesday to press him to back the legislation, a senior administration official said....

One person close to the matter said that while the prospects for the measure several weeks ago seemed glum, its odds of passing now are above 50%.  The White House and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill agreed in August to postpone the legislation until after the midterm elections.

One source close to the process said that after the midterms -- which will bring shifting partisan dynamics to Congress in January -- White House officials working on the effort recognized they needed to move forward now.  "It's the lame duck or never strategy," one source close to the process said.

November 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Fraternal Order of Police now supporting FIRST STEP Act with some sentencing reform provisions

Roughly nine months ago, the President of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) wrote this three-page letter to the President of the United States expressing opposition to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  But yesterday, in what seems to me to be a important and encouraging development, the FOP released this one-page statement headed "FOP Partners with President Trump on Criminal Justice Reform."

The new FOP release should be read in full, as it indicates support for adding modest sentencing reforms to the FIRST STEP Act bill that was passed by the House earlier this year.  In addition, the sub-heading of the press release says "Revised and amended First Step Act to be introduced next week." This strongly suggests that "Beltway insiders" are prepared and planning to try to get big federal statutory sentencing reform done in a matter of weeks.

November 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Brennan Center wasting no time advocating for sentencing reforms after election and ouster of AG Jeff Sessions

The folks over at the Brennan Center already have two short pieces up making the case for Congress to move forward with federal sentencing reforms and for the Senate Judiciary Committee to seek to ensure the next Attorney General cares about criminal justice reform.  Here are links to the pieces with some excerpts:

"Sentencing Reform Should Be a Top Post-Election Priority for Congress

As Congress prepares to enter a lame-duck session following yesterday’s midterm elections, it has a rare opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation that will help reform our criminal justice system and end mass incarceration. And sentencing reform must be included in any meaningful effort to reduce the number of people entering the federal prison system....

Criminal justice reform is a rare point of bipartisan consensus in today’s polarized climate. In fact, 71 percent of Americans surveyed – including a majority of Trump voters – agree that it’s important to reduce the country’s prison population. And there’s substantial support from key members of Congress – both Republican and Democrat – for comprehensive reform. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled he would call a vote after the midterm election if more than 60 senators support the bill.

With that momentum, one of Congress’s first agenda items for this year’s “lame-duck” session should be to pass legislation that will help reduce mass incarceration. And any successful effort will start with sentencing reform.

"With Sessions Gone, the GOP Can Show It Cares About Criminal Justice Reform"

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is a reliable and trusted ally for criminal justice reform advocates, both right and left.  So when President Trump nominated Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department, it came as something of a surprise that Grassley, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cleared the deck for him, ensuring a quick and easy Senate confirmation.

If Grassley later came to regret that — and there’s reason to believe he did — today offers a chance to correct it.  Against the backdrop of our looming, slow-burning constitutional crisis, Grassley can and should make support for criminal justice reform a litmus test for the next attorney general.  He has that power.  Now is the time to use it....

[I]f Trump is serious about criminal justice reform, he should simply refuse to nominate someone who doesn’t support sentencing reform.  And whether or not he follows through, Grassley should refuse to confirm anyone who will oppose or sabotage similar reform efforts.

Realistically, though, the best chance for guaranteeing a supportive attorney general rests with Grassley and other supporters of criminal justice reform on the Judiciary Committee, like Mike Lee (R-Utah), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and even, sometimes, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).  By demanding an attorney general who will back their words with action — and faithfully implement rather than sabotage any reform package they pass — Grassley and his committee could effect a major reset, giving the country a chance to move on from at least one aspect of the last two years.

November 8, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 05, 2018

Could the FIRST STEP Act, with sentencing reforms added, get through Congress in just a matter of weeks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Examiner article headlined "Prison reform bill to include sentencing, setting up post-election fight." Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform advocates say sentencing reform provisions will be included in legislation unveiled shortly after midterm elections Tuesday, triggering an intense lame-duck struggle over attaching penalty reductions to a White House-backed prison reform bill.

The First Step Act passed the House in a 360-59 vote earlier this year, but without sentencing reforms, at the behest of Republican opponents.  Reform advocates expect rapid legislative action after a pre-election pause, and believe there will be enough votes to pass the expanded legislative package.

Two people close to the process tell the Washington Examiner that a bipartisan group of senators has agreed to attach a set of sentencing reforms to the House-passed bill.

The additions include shortening federal three-strike drug penalties from life in prison to 25 years, reducing two-strike drug penalties from 20 years to 15, allowing a firearm sentencing enhancement to run concurrently with the underlying penalty, and allowing retroactive sentencing for crack cocaine cases judged under tougher historical laws.

“We are very excited about it. We think that the four reforms that are in the bill are ones that make sense,” said Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and an influential conservative reform advocate. “From what we understand, there are enough votes — plenty — for it to happen,” Holden said. Holden said it’s his understanding that the sentencing language will also expand a “safety valve” option for judges to use discretion.

Both Holden and another person close to the legislation drafting process, who asked not to be identified, said there is wording to reduce concern about illegal immigrants benefiting from sentencing reform. The second person said the provision is being finalized, but there will be “a clarification saying this does not change existing statutes relating to undocumented individuals in the federal system.”

A spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, an influential advocate of the reforms, did not respond to requests for comment.

Holden said he expects the White House, particularly presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, to forcefully back the bill.  Last month, Trump said in a Fox News interview that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ longstanding opposition to reforms did not represent him. "If he doesn't [support reform], then he gets overruled by me.  Because I make the decision, he doesn't," Trump said Oct. 11....

It’s unclear how a group of Republican skeptics, such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, will react. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised a whip count after the election, and advocates believe it will make it clear with overwhelming support....

Last month, clemency advocates including Amy Povah of CAN-DO Clemency and Alveda King, the anti-abortion evangelical leader, hosted a panel at a Women for Trump event at Trump International Hotel in Washington.  Povah hopes that Congress passes the legislation, and that Trump will supplement the reform with generous use of his constitutional pardon powers. Last month, Trump said "a lot of people" are jailed for year for "no reason" and that he was actively looking to release some.

Povah said clemency would be particularly appreciated around the holiday, including Thanksgiving, when presidents pardon turkeys, disillusioning people who are looking for one. “I think Trump said it best, he said that he’s going to release a lot of people and I think a lot of people in prison took that seriously and literally," Povah said.  "He sent a lot of hope in that humans may be in line, maybe for the first time included in the Thanksgiving pardon."...

Trump has spoken repeatedly about his desire to release inmates from prison after commuting the life sentence of drug crime convict Alice Johnson in June at the request of celebrity Kim Kardashian West.  At a second Trump-Kardashian meeting, the TV star urged freedom for Chris Young, who was arrested at 22 and sentenced to life in prison for drug dealing. She brought with her former federal judge Kevin Sharp, who had imposed the sentence due to rigid federal laws he argued made little sense.  On his own, Trump mentioned another inmate, Matthew Charles, who returned to prison this year after a court found his drug sentence was reduced in error.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just saw that Law360 also has a new article on this front under the headline "Hard Decisions Loom In Lame-Duck Push For Sentencing Reform."  This lengthy piece starts with this sentence: "Over the next two months, Republican lawmakers have a chance to pass the most comprehensive criminal justice reforms in a generation, a combination of prison and sentencing reforms that stand to improve the lives of more than 180,000 federal inmates."

November 5, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Two notable commentaries in support of FIRST STEP Act from inside the Beltway

The Washington Examiner and The Washington Times are both right-leaning papers, which only adds to the import of these two recent commentaries in these publications:

"Our cruel and inhumane prison system is so close to reform" by Mark Vargas.  An excerpt:

Thanks to former President Bill Clinton, the 1994 crime bill created an America that was less compassionate, less forgiving, at times inhumane, and sent many nonviolent, first-time offenders away to prison for a very long time.

At the time, supporters of the Clinton crime bill argued that such measures would reduce crimes and keep our streets and neighborhoods safer. But in the end, the legislation only accelerated mass incarceration, stripped inmates of their dignity, and created the false narrative that everyone in prison was evil and a danger to society. It is why the NAACP in 1993 referred to the legislation as a “crime against the American people.”

But thanks to the leadership of President Trump, the discussion about prison and sentencing reform is back on the table. In a recent poll conducted by the University of Maryland, a majority of the country support the idea of criminal justice reform as well.

For Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others to make the argument that prison reform will make our country less safe exposes their ignorance and how out of touch they are. As creatures of the swamp, they care more about maintaining power than making a difference. Sessions' comments show just how political the Justice Department has become under his leadership.

"Justice demands passage of First Step bill to rehabilitate lives" by Rebecca Hagelin.  An excerpt:

I’ll never forget the heart-wrenching scene from my visit to the women’s prison. I sat in silence. For the first time, I pondered the unintended consequences of lengthy mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a conservative, and I’m “tough on crime.” I just realize that locking up moms and dads for years for nonviolent drug offenses has an unending ripple effect, doing more damage to society than good.

Under current federal laws, many nonviolent drug offenses have mandatory sentences of two decades. The full scope of the consequences of such lengthy sentences unfolds every day in families across the country. The tiny girl who threw her arms around her mommy is an adult by now, and I often wonder if her mom has returned home yet.

Sadly — incredibly — our federal prison system treats such inmates as the forgotten men and women. In so doing, their children have become forgotten too. With little or no vocational training, drug rehabilitation programs or opportunities to receive education, these inmates eventually return to society estranged from their families and devoid of hope.

The result? Within just three years 40 percent will commit another crime, many falling victim to their untreated addiction, and end up back behind bars. It’s a vicious cycle that wreaks personal and societal havoc in neighborhoods and families across the country. We must face the fact that our federal prison system is failing our citizens, and come to grips with the reality that the opioid epidemic will not be solved by maintaining the status quo.

Thank God, President Trump is committed to effective prison reform and combatting the drug crisis. Through his leadership and the hard work of Jared Kushner, the prison reform First Step Act passed the House of Representatives in May with overwhelming bipartisan support. This much-needed legislation now contains modest, commonsense sentencing reform initiatives added by crime reduction advocates on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

October 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 19, 2018

New poll indicates strong public support for various provisions of FIRST STEP ACT

I noted in this prior post a poll commissioned by a prosecutor group showing significant opposition to proposals to reduce sentences for serious drug traffickers.  But, as detailed in this Reason piece headlined "Poll Shows Wide Support For Criminal Justice Reform Bill In Congress: Prosecutor groups and criminal justice reform advocates are putting out dueling polls on a major bill in Congress," this week brings a new poll with very different results:

A new survey shows wide support among registered voters for provisions in a major criminal justice bill in Congress, in sharp contrast to a survey promoted by a group of federal prosecutors released last week showing opposition to the bill.  According to a national survey of 1,234 registered voters conducted online between Oct. 11-12, 82 percent of respondents approved of the specific provisions in the FIRST STEP Act, a prison reform bill that passed the House by a wide bipartisan margin this May.

Additionally, 82 percent supported allowing non-violent offenders to finish their sentences in home confinement in order to ease their integration back into society, and 76 percent of respondents agreed with the FIRST STEP Act's "good behavior" provision that would expand the number of days non-violent offenders can have removed from their sentence.  The survey was conducted by In Pursuit Of, LLC, a communications firm connected with the Koch network of conservative advocacy groups, for the organization Freedom Partners....

The Foundation for Safeguarding Justice, a group aligned with the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA), which represents federal prosecutors, released its own poll last week showing what it says is widespread opposition to reducing federal penalties for drug traffickers....

"We're looking at what this group and what they're putting out and just shaking our heads," says Mark Holden, the chairman of Freedom Partners and general counsel of Koch Industries. "We're not sure how they're coming up with their numbers.  The home confinement stuff they're polling on, our polling shows a completely different outcome.  There's immense support for all the provisions in the bill, and anyone who says otherwise is obviously motivated by an agenda."

The NAAUSA has consistently opposed efforts to reduce federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, expand judges' discretion, or in any way reduce the leverage federal prosecutors enjoy over defendants — a result of which is that 97 percent of federal prosecutions end in plea deals.

Of course, the language of the surveys might be the culprit here. The same respondent might, on different days and with no internal contradiction, say when asked that fentanyl dealers deserve harsher sentences and that nonviolent offenders should have better preparation and more opportunities to reintegrate back into society.

Other supporters of the FIRST STEP Act also say they've seen consistent public support for the measures in the bill.  "Virtually every poll we've seen shows support for prison reform and sentencing reform," says Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, a grassroots conservative advocacy group. "After all, people are seeing the successes of state level efforts."

October 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Some prosecutors and some conservatives push back on momentum for federal criminal justice reforms

As highlighted via recent posts here and here, momentum seems to be picking up again for the passage of a version of the federal FIRST STEP Act that would reform federal prison practices and tweak federal sentencing rules.  Perhaps prompted by these realities, a new poll and new letter has emerged to push back on reform efforts. 

The poll comes from ORC International and was commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice, a group which represents the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.  This press release reports on the heart of the poll:

A new survey of American adults, commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice (FSJ), confirms that Americans overwhelmingly oppose sentencing and prison and “reforms” that would reduce federal criminal penalties for drug traffickers and allow the early release of prisoners to “home confinement.” Three out of four Americans surveyed (74 percent) said that they oppose proposals that reduce penalties for criminals involved in the trafficking of heroin, fentanyl, and similar drugs....

Public opposition to criminal leniency is deep across the American population and holds true regardless of race, gender, or party affiliation, the FSJ survey results (detailed below) show. The survey results represent an objective barometer of public opposition to criminal leniency for drug traffickers, in sharp contrast to the skewed results of a recent Kentucky poll touted by criminal leniency advocates....

The survey, conducted from September 13-16, 2018, interviewed 1,004 American adults, and was administered by ORC International, a nationwide polling firm. Full study results and methodology are available here.

Employing similar rhetoric and expressing similar concerns(and citing this poll), an assortment of conservative leaders have sent this letter to Prez Trump urging him to oppose FIRST STEP Act. Here is part of the letter:

Now, a leniency-industrial complex is urging you to support a bill that would reduce the sentences for federal drug traffickers, and allow large numbers of those same traffickers to “serve” their sentences outside prison in “home confinement.”

Mr. President, don’t do it. Trust your instincts. America seems, to many of us, to be plagued with different applications of justice. The public is losing faith in the rule of law and reforms are needed. But, here [we present] just four of many reasons why you should oppose this emerging new bill....

But this bill is not prison reform — it’s prison release. It’s not sentencing reform — it’s sentencing reductions. Contrary to what jailbreak supporters tell you, these policies are far from popular.  Proponents inadvertently acknowledge how unpopular their proposals are by disguising what they’re doing with buzzwords and abstract concepts.

Given how momentum for federal reform has built, slowly but surely, over much of 2018, I would be surprised if this new poll and letter significantly changes how important political players' are dancing with the FIRST STEP Act. But they both show that seemingly ever-growing consensus in support of federal reforms does not include everyone, and they also help highlight why even relatively modest reforms like the FIRST STEP Act can be a challenging political lift.

October 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Prez Trump reiterates support for prison reform and says AG Jeff Sessions "gets overruled by me"

As detailed in this Hill article, headlined "Trump: I'll overrule Sessions on criminal justice reform," Prez Donald Trump stated yet again today his support for significant federal prison and sentencing reform provisions working through Congress. Here are the details:

President Trump on Thursday said he would overrule Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he tries to stymie efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system.

“If he doesn't, then he gets overruled by me,” Trump said when asked during an interview with “Fox & Friends” about Sessions's opposition to the effort.

“There has to be a reform because it's very unfair right now,” the president added. “It's very unfair to African-Americans. It's very unfair to everybody. And it's also very costly.”

Sessions, a law-and-order candidate who became estranged from Trump over the Russia probe, played a role in successfully urging the president to put off action on criminal justice reform before the midterm elections.

Trump's comments come hours before he's scheduled to have lunch with the rapper Kanye West and former NFL star Jim Brown, who are expected to urge Trump to move forward with sentencing and prison reforms. The president heaped praise on West and Brown, saying the support from the rapper caused his approval among African-Americans to shoot up "like 25 percent" because "he's got a big following in the African-American community."

Some of many prior related posts:

October 11, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promises floor vote on FIRST STEP Act after midterm election if more than 60 Senators want to move forward

This short piece from The Hill, headlined "McConnell looking at criminal justice reform after midterms," provides an encouraging update on the prospects for federal criminal justice reform after next month's  election:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says he will move a criminal justice reform compromise after the Nov. 6 election if it has 60 votes.

The Senate GOP conference is divided on the package, which merged a House-passed prison-reform bill with bipartisan sentencing reform provisions crafted by the Senate....

“Criminal justice has been much discussed,” McConnell told reporters Wednesday. “What we’ll do after the election is take a whip count and if there are more than 60 senators who want to move forward on that bill, we’ll find time to address it.”

It’s a significant commitment from McConnell who has resisted bringing criminal justice reform legislation up for a vote because it divides his conference.

I blogged here a prior Hill article from a couple of months ago during Senate negotiations over the FIRST STEP Act which indicated that the White House back then had secured "30 to 32 ... 'yes' votes among Republican senators [and hoped] that the number of GOP supporters could eventually grow as many as 40 to 46."  That article led me to speculate in August that a version of the FIRST STEP Act could perhaps garner up to 90 votes in the Senate, and I do not think this head-counting is likely to change all that dramatically after the election (though one never knows).  Even if "only" 30 GOP Senators favor moving forward on the FIRST STEP Act, that will be more than enough for Senator McConnell to move ahead unless a whole lot of Democratic Senators decide they want to hold out for a more ambitious bill (which I think is unlikely). 

In other words, I am starting to think that the prospect of the FIRST STEP Act becoming law before the end of the year might be pretty darn good.  I am never inclined to count on Congress on get anything done, but on this front it does seem we are getting closer and closer.

Some of many prior recent related posts:

October 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Kelley Ashby Paul, Senator Rand Paul's spouse, makes the Kentucky case for criminal justice reform

Long-time readers know I have been singing the praises of Senator Rand Paul since he began making the case for consequential federal sentencing reforms more than half a decade ago.  Now I am pleased to see that Senator Paul's spouse, Kelley Ashby Paul, is adding her voice to the call for reform through this new op-ed headlined "Kelley Paul: We must focus on recovery, not incarceration."  Here are excerpts:

As a community, as a state and as a nation, we must speak out in favor of expanded rehabilitation opportunities for those struggling with addiction. Because of the Hope Center’s expansion, even more women ... will have the tools to overcome addiction and begin a new path forward in life.

It is recovery, not incarceration, which allows people to become productive members of society — citizens with jobs and families who can contribute and make our communities better places to work, grow and live. It is recovery, not incarceration, which brings hope and peace into the lives of thousands of Americans and their families struggling with addiction.

The Hope Center expansion comes on the heels of the enactment of the first ever Dignity Bill in the nation, right here in Kentucky.  Because of Sen. Julie Raque Adams’ sponsorship of the bill, and the tenacity of women leaders on both sides of the aisle, pregnant women accused of minor, non-violent crimes now have the option to enter into a recovery program. They can get the treatment they need, instead of languishing behind bars because they are unable to make bail.

Criminal-justice reform is something my husband, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, has been fighting for since he arrived in Washington. He is a lead co-sponsor of bipartisan bail reform legislation with Sen. Kamala Harris, and with the recent introduction of the First Step Act, a major bipartisan prison reform bill that includes expanded treatment opportunities, I am hopeful we can continue our efforts to fix a broken system.  I am proud to assure the people of this commonwealth that my family will do everything we can to ensure that the First Step Act will get a vote.

Criminal-justice reform goes hand in hand with reducing homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction.  We have learned that locking people up who are in need of treatment is not the answer.

The U.S. is the most heavily incarcerated country in the developed world, and many of those incarcerated have suffered a trauma, such as sexual or physical abuse, which led to addiction, and ultimately led them to our justice system. Instead of treating these individuals, we toss them behind bars, where their problems only get worse.  This cycle of failure results in staggering financial costs to the taxpayer, but more importantly a devastating cost to families and children.

I suspect that most folks in the Commonwealth of Kentucky are in support of the kinds of criminal justice reforms here promoted by Kelley Paul, and the state's Governor has been an outspoken reform advocate. But when it comes to getting votes on significant federal criminal justice bills, the most important person from Kentucky is Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell Jr. He decides whether any bill gets a full Senate vote and he has not allowed a floor vote on any significant criminal justice reform bill during his leadership. I hope that changes soon, and maybe Kelley Paul can have more influence on this front than seemingly her spouse has so far.

September 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 27, 2018

A notable (and curious?) call for criminal justice reform that serves as another sign of new political times

The passing of John McCain this weekend led me to review some of my long ago postings in the blog topic archive labelled Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues.  The main theme I kept returning to is how little discussion there was of criminal justice issues during that election cycle.  Here are links to a few of the 2008 posts on that theme: 

Other posts in that archive that might still be considered notable a decade later include Rudy Giuliani doing robocalls accusing Senator Obama of being soft on crime and Is Senator Clinton to the right of Justice Scalia on sentencing issues?.  (This last post has me thinking again about the fact that Hillary Clinton's criminal justice history makes her seem much more like a member of the "tough and tougher" crowd than many (most?) members of the current GOP.   Hillary Clinton in 2007 (in)famously opposed making retroactive the first small crack guideline amendments passed by the US Sentencing Commission, most of the GOP seemingly now supports making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act fully retroactive.)

Of course, circa 2018, there is a heck of a lot more talk about criminal justice reform from an array of political candidates in all parties.  And I noticed this morning this interesting (and somewhat curious) commentary by Beto O'Rourke, a Texas congressman taking on Ted Cruz for election to the US Senate, under the headline "O’Rourke: Texas should lead the way on true criminal justice reform." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

On Wednesday, I toured the Harris County Jail with Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and met men from this community who have made a mistake from which they may or may not recover. Men who don’t have the resources to post bail.  Some of whom got arrested on purpose to get the treatment and care they need, care they won’t be able to afford or access on the outside.  In fact, the Harris County Jail is the largest provider of mental health services in our state, a state that is the least insured in the nation. Of the 10,000 inmates in the Harris County Jail, one quarter of them are being prescribed at least one psychotropic medication.  The jail has more people receiving psychiatric treatment every day than the nine state mental hospitals in Texas combined.

But beyond those who need health care, there are many more languishing behind bars for nonviolent crimes — sixty percent yet to even be convicted. Unable to work, to pay taxes, to raise their kids, to contribute to our society, to realize their full potential.  And it’s happening at the average cost of $87 per person, per day, and more than $400 per person, per day for prisoners requiring medication or medical treatment.  That tab is ultimately picked up by the taxpayers of Harris County.

The jail I visited is not an outlier.  Rather, it is part of the world’s largest prison population.  One that is disproportionately comprised of people of color, though we know that people of all races use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate. Many have called this the New Jim Crow, and for good reason.  One in four black children have had a parent in the criminal justice system, compared to just four percent of white children. That rate is nearly two times what it was in the 1980s.  And it begins with a school-to-prison pipeline that starts as early as kindergarten, where a black child is four to five times as likely to be suspended or expelled as a white child.

Following my visit, I am more convinced than ever that Texas can and must take the lead in building a criminal justice system that is more fair and that urgently puts our country closer to the words written above the highest court in our land: equal justice under law.  This is how I propose we do it.

First, we should eliminate private, for-profit prisons from our justice system.  Locking someone up is a power that should be reserved for our government, not outsourced to corporations that have the perverse incentive of getting more people behind bars so that there are more profits for their shareholders.

Second, we need to end the failed war on drugs that has long been a war on people, waged on some people over other people.  Who is going to be the last man — more likely than not a black man — to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in more than half of the states in this country?  We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to their full potential and to the greatness of this country.

Third, we must stop using mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenses — a practice that costs taxpayers dearly and destroys lives in the process by locking up people who could safely re-enter society. And we replace this practice with policies that begin treating addiction like the public health concern it is.

Fourth, we can end the current use of bail bonds that punish people for being poor.  This is a tactic that wastes resources on incarcerating those who are not a threat to anyone, not a flight risk, not likely to be repeat offenders. In the Harris County Jail, it’s estimated that 500 to 600 of the inmates at any given time fit this description — in for misdemeanors but without the resources to post bail as I did more than twenty years ago.

Finally, we should provide meaningful reentry to help cut down on recidivism for those who committed non-violent crimes. That starts with strong rehabilitation services, counseling and access to preventative health care. It continues by banning the box on job applications so those formerly incarcerated can work and pay taxes, returning drivers licenses so they can get to that place of employment, allowing them to apply for loans that can unlock skills trainings, and ensuring their constitutional right to participate in civic life by voting is protected....

Giving low-level offenders a second chance no matter the color of their skin or the economic status they hold can create opportunity for all of us. It will help build a future that is more just, more fair, and more prosperous for every single person in this state and this country. It is time for Texas to lead the way.

I call this commentary "curious: because O'Rourke is talking about his experience touring a local jail while running for federal office, and he makes no mention of current federal proposals like the FIRST STEP Act. Senator Ted Cruz has been resistant to some federal sentencing reforms proposed even by the GOP, and I would think candidate O'Rourke could and should seek to clearly distinguish his position from that of his opponent. Moveover, as students of modern criminal justice know, it is a bit curious to call for "Texas to lead the way" in criminal justice reform because, to a large extent, Texas already has starting the the mid 2000s when the state turned away from building more prisons and invested in more alternatives to incarceration.

Curious particulars notwithstanding, it is still heartening that our modern political times have evolved to the point that prominent candidates in the Lone Star State are eager to talk at length about improving Texas justice (even when a candidate is seeking a federal office).

August 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 24, 2018

A true insider's reaction to Senator Cotton's commentary about federal criminal justice reform efforts

In prior posts here and here and here, I noted the commentary from Senator Tom Cotton attacking the federal criminal justice reform bills moving through Congress and some responses it has engendered.  Today I receive an email from the son of a federal prisoner who maintains this interesting blog with postings from his father.   The blog is worth checking out and it is titled "Blue Collar Criminal: 60-something small business owner.  Screwed by the DOJ.  Now I'm in prison.  These are my thoughts."

In addition to pointing me to this blog, the prisoner's son shared his father's response to the piece Senator Cotton wrote in the Wall Street Journal and gave me permission to reprint his father's writings here:

I write this response to Sen. Tom Cotton's editorial ("Reform the Prisons Without Going Soft on Crime") from within my 8 X 10' federal prison cell I share with another medicare-eligible inmate.  We agree that Cotton's essay should have been entitled - Reform the Prisons Without Doing a Damn Thing.

Cotton bases a lot of his assertions on statistics. In lieu of rebutting them, which would be a bit hard given my current lack of access to the internet, I have to settle on "inferior" data, which is the actual experience of actual prisoners whom I know, and find every bit as credible as anyone I knew on the "outside".  The specific ones I'm bouncing Cotton's preposterous claims off of, are guys with 10+ years of incarceration, and who have experienced a wide variety of federal prisons before working themselves down to the federal camp.  Though I've only been "down" one year, I find my bullsh*t detector is pretty reliable, and comes in handy when evaluating prison stories and reading editorials such as Cotton's.  Based on these findings, I not only doubt the factuality of the statistics he uses, I gravely mistrust the motives behind them.

I came here a big fan of Sen. Cotton's.  I first knew of him when he was a soldier, serving in Iraq, who was thought for awhile to be fictitious, due to the cognitive dissonance produced by the idea of a Harvard Univ./Harvard Law School grad being an infantry officer. I was very attuned to him, since my son was also in Iraq at the same time.  He also put his pen to good use in rebutting anti-war propaganda.  I was shocked, when my "adventure" with the DOJ brought me here, to find that Cotton, along with another of my conservative heroes - Sen. Jeff Sessions - were regarded as the mortal enemies of federal inmates, at least those who followed the progress of issues related to prison reform.  My move away from fanhood has been sealed by this editorial, which has impressed me that he's traded the tools of war for the tools of sophistry.

For starters, in Cotton's mind, we are all "criminals", a word he loves to repeat. One-size-fits-all.  Excuse my sensitivity, and I leave it to friends and family to defend my name, but many of these guys are as fine individuals as any I know, and were "productive, law-abiding citizens" until the feds came after them.  (If you find that hard to swallow, you might care to read Harvey Silverglate's 'Three Felonies A Day'.)

He calls the House bill "flawed", and to the extent that it tampers with mandatory minimum sentences, or gives judges more discretion, a prescription for a "jailbreak". Why is lengthening a sentence wise, but shortening some foolish?  Why is Cotton incapable of recognizing that prison populations are comprised of both truly dangerous, bad-guy criminals, and nonviolent, non-dangerous law-transgressors (including some who are truly and factually innocent)? Many of the guys I know in here would probably only "endanger communities" by cutting their neighbors lawn while they're on vacation.  (And I'm not here making a distinction between "white-collar" and "drug offenders".  I've learned that 'drug offender' is also not a one-size-fits-all category).

In his paragraph on the current "drug epidemic", he cites a number of statistics to justify mandatory minimum sentencing, but ends by essentially admitting those statistics might not be significant or prove his point.

His statements about how very little of recidivism is attributable to parole violation, does not purport with what I've seen nor the experience of my "experts".  Most of the guys in my unit who have prior convictions are here now because their parole officer caught them 'high'.  One guy here, a farm boy, had a prior drug felony, and "caught" an 8 year sentence for a felony firearms crime.  He was deer hunting in a tree stand, having lost his right to bear arms by virtue of being a drug felon. Cotton's statistic to prove that drug convictions lead to rearrests for murder and rape 77% of the time, strikes my fellow inmates as not only false, but weird, crazy scare tactics.

Cotton's cherry-picked example of a drug dealer, Wendell Callahan, who murdered his girlfriend and her daughters, is great for demagogic purposes, but irrelevant to the debate of shortening the eligible sentences of nonviolent felons.  This has to be weighed in a context that looks objectively at good outcomes as well as negative.  Keeping families apart, and depriving children of their fathers, when its not necessary for the public good, is a social evil; and this is what mandatory minimum sentences often do.  It leads to and insures that the next generation will likely repeat the mistakes of their parents.

Cotton attacks even the term "mass incarceration" on the strange basis that it couldn't possibly be big, since it could be bigger.  I would say simply, that whichever country incarcerates the highest percentage of it's citizenry deserves the title of "mass incarcerator".  This would be the United States.  One book I've read states that the U.S. incarcerates 6 to 12 times more than the following countries: Canada, U.K., France, Germany, Italy or Australia.  Yet Cotton thinks we don't lock up enough.

But it gets worse. Cotton writes that "virtually no one goes to federal prison for "low-level, nonviolent" drug offenses.  Even I, a relative newbie, know guys who are not only here for that, but have sentences exceeding 10 years.  He says those that are here for just that have only pleaded to that, though they actually committed more serious offenses. Baloney.  Here's how that goes - they commit a crime deserving 1 year (for example) and plead "down" to a 4 year sentence, because they're being threatened with a 12 year sentence.  My friends here can't believe that Cotton doesn't know this.

It's not unusual for the feds to concoct 20 charges, and settle for 2. It happens to everyone.  It happened to me.  They are extremely creative in their use of enhancements.  (If the real crime were so heinous, why would they settle for a much lighter sentence?)

And then this - "Presidential pardons are a much better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions." Puh-leeze! (I think this ridiculous statement was just a set-up for his snarky shot at Trump.)

Cotton dismisses fiscal conservatives who would hope to reduce the cost of the American prison system. "The costs," he says, "of crime ... far outweigh the downsides of putting serious criminals behind bars."  That all depends on what you consider to be "serious" criminals, and how you calculate the "downsides".  At my camp, the common consensus is that the average age here is 50+.  That includes quite a few in their 70s, and about 3 or 4 in their 80s. Maybe a dozen use canes.  The financial distress on families and the negative economic impact on communities would certainly be part of the calculation of the "downsides", as would unquantifiable costs such as the loss of adult children to care for aged and debilitated parents.  Certainly also there's a tremendous cost to communities who have lost key employees and employers, volunteers to non-profits, etc.  There's a 80 yr old oncologist/researcher who's here due to a financial transgression of a side company he was a partner to.

As to his closing assertion that "mandatory minimums .... work", there is a great body of research that would show otherwise.  I, for one, would love to see a poll taken of federal judges as to the truth of that statement.

Sen. Cotton ends his diatribe against prison reform, the kind that might actually reduce the prison population, with an affirmation of "faith-based and other antirecidivism programs".  I heartily concur, in fact, I wish everyone would embrace the teaching of the Bible. In it we read this great truth - "For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumph over judgment." (James 2.13)

If that is deemed as soft on crime, we need to deeply consider where we are heading.

August 24, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly has decided he will not support federal criminal justice bill before mid-term election

This new Axios piece has a depressing headline: "Scoop: Trump won't endorse criminal justice bill before midterms."  Here are all the reported details:

President Trump has stymied a plan to push prison and sentencing reform before the midterms, according to an administration source with direct knowledge. In a White House meeting on Thursday afternoon, Trump decided that the compromise package that Jared Kushner, Sen. Chuck Grassley and others have been advocating for is too politically difficult to endorse before the elections, the source told Axios.

Why it matters: Without the president backing the bill, which might have reduced some mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes and sent around 4,000 prisoners home, it has zero chance of getting a vote before the midterms. Senate leadership was already reluctant to bring it up for a vote. The collapse of the bill is a win for opponents of the package, including law-and-order hardliners Sen. Tom Cotton and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

As noted in this prior post, Politico has already been reporting that the Senate was not going to vote on any criminal justice reform bill until after the election.  But I suppose it was possible Prez Trump might want to push forward; indeed, some commentators, as noted here and here, have suggested it would be politically wise for Trump to campaign for reform in the run-up to the election.  Ultimately, this decision by Trump provides even more basis to worry that it will continue to be a heavy slog to get sentencing reform as well as prison reform to the President's desk.

Some of many prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: This new Washington Post article reports on today's White House meeting on criminal justice reform efforts under the headline "GOP senator: Trump backs tenets of compromise on criminal-justice reform." The report suggests that both proponents and opponents of reform think Prez Trump is on their side.  The article seems to confirm that reform is not going to get done before the mid-term election.  

August 23, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Lots more news and notes and commentary about federal criminal justice reform efforts ... including report of no Senate vote until after election

Here in no particular order is a too-quick round-up of some of the notable stories and commentaries I have seen this week as the debate over federal prison and sentencing reform continues to heat up:

UPDATE: Here are a few more pieces on this front worth checking out, including perhaps the most tangibly significant in the form of the Politico piece that the Senate will not move forward on a vote until after the November election:

August 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Still more on Senator Cotton's efforts to thwart significant federal criminal justice reforms and responses there to

In posts late last week here and here, I noted the commentary from Senator Tom Cotton attacking the federal criminal justice reform bills moving through Congress and some responses it has already engendered.  Now Politico has this new article on this beat headlined "Sentencing reform tests Cotton’s sway with Trump."  Here are a few highlights from a lengthy article:

Tom Cotton is going all out to defeat a last-ditch effort to pass sentencing reform before this year’s midterm elections, hoping to win a high-stakes influence campaign over President Donald Trump on the issue.

Cotton is lambasting the proposal as a “jailbreak” that would “let serious felons back on the streets,” taking on a daunting coalition fighting for the package that includes the Koch political operation, White House adviser Jared Kushner and a number of powerful GOP senators. But Cotton believes that, in the end, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will side with him.

“The president went to Singapore and agreed with the Singaporeans that we should give the death penalty to drug dealers. I can’t imagine the president wants to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers,” the Arkansas Republican said in an interview. “I believe Sen. McConnell shares my view that we should not let serious felons out of jail and we should not shorten the sentences for drug dealers.”

Even opponents of sentencing reform will privately admit it would likely pass if McConnell brings it up. But Cotton’s loud opposition may determine whether or not McConnell even allows a vote given his reluctance to summon up legislation that divides the conference — right before the election, no less....

The conflict is pitting some of Trump’s closest allies against each other. On one side are Cotton and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who calls the sentencing component “troubling” and wants to concentrate on prison reform. On the other are Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wants to go even further on criminal justice reform but would be willing to accept the slimmed-down proposal, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who supports it....

Though the president supports the standalone prison reform effort, no one is quite sure where exactly Trump is going to come down on the sentencing piece that’s being added by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Advocates for sentencing reform are hoping the president will offer a crucial endorsement to get the legislation across the finish line after commuting the sentence of Alice Johnson for drug offenses, while opponents say he’s unlikely to undercut his law-and-order persona....

“There is not a constituency, certainly among Republican voters, to let serious felons out of prison or slash their prison sentences,” Cotton said in the interview. “It’s ill-advised policy and even more ill-advised timing.” Countered Paul, another close Trump ally with opposing views: “We have a lot of non-violent criminals in our prison and they’re taking up space that could be better put to use for violent criminals."

Cotton also has strong allies, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long opposed sweeping sentencing reforms. The two have frustrated people working on the bill.

Yet many on the law enforcement side, a key Trump constituency, are working with Cotton. Jonathan Thompson, the National Sheriff Association's executive director, has spoken to the president twice about sentencing reform in the past year and half: “The president knows we’re concerned.” “We think what he’s doing is terrific. Sen. Cotton recognizes that it’s a very flawed bill,” said Larry Leiser, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “We’re hopeful the president won’t [endorse it].”

Unless Trump makes a major push for the legislation and takes on his critics like Cotton, there are many reasons for McConnell not to bring up the bill before the election. It would likely take at least a week for the Senate to process, time that McConnell might think is better spent processing lifetime judicial appointments ahead of an uncertain midterm outcome. Plus it would invoke an ugly intraparty foodfight, squaring Cotton off with proponents of sentencing reform like Grassley, who has been tweeting that the president “wants something done on prison/crim justice reform. So do I.”

“The consensus is the prison reform stuff,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “There are people who want to do more, but it’s the usual issue: Do you want try and do more and fail, or do you want to do what’s possible?”

Despite the long odds, the battle is raging behind the scenes. Internal discussions of the subject at Senate lunches have been heated, according to Republican sources, a preview of what might happen on the Senate floor if the chamber takes it up. It’s the same dynamic that kept McConnell from bringing up a larger criminal justice reform package in 2016 as Cotton railed against it and declared the United States has an "under-incarceration problem.”

Trump’s “for prison reform, I’m for prison reform. What I don’t support is sentencing reductions under the guise of prison reforms, and that’s unfortunately what many senators are moving towards,” Cotton said in the interview. A number of conservative senators have quietly expressed their opposition to the sentencing reform component, according to groups working to defeat it. But Cotton's taken a bigger gamble by getting out front to stop a bill that hasn’t even produced yet.

Meanwhile, over here at the Daily Signal, John G. Malcolm and Brett Tolman have this lengthy new commentary under the headline "Why It’s Not ‘Soft On Crime’ to Support Criminal Justice Reform." Here is a snippet focused on mandatory minimums:

Cotton and others argue that mandatory minimum charges are reserved for kingpins and other major drug dealers, and low-level dealers are rarely subjected to mandatory minimum penalties. However, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan independent agency that collects and analyzes federal sentencing data, found that a surprisingly large number of low-level drug couriers are subjected to mandatory minimum penalties.

It is easy to see how that happens. Under federal law, a defendant charged as part of a drug conspiracy—even a low-level courier, who may be acting solely to support his own addiction—can be charged and sentenced based on the total amount of drugs sold by everyone who participated in that conspiracy. That’s true even if the courier never knew who these people were or what quantity of drugs they sold.

Of course, the courier should be punished. But how badly? Remember, we are talking about mandatory minimum penalties. A judge can always impose a higher sentence, up to the statutory maximum, for deserving drug traffickers and violent criminals. The proposed reductions are, in truth, quite modest.

Senators are currently debating the possibility of reducing the mandatory minimum penalties for second-time drug offenders from 20 years to 15 years, and for third-time drug offenders from life in prison without the possibility of parole to 25 years. Does anyone really think that minimum penalties of 15 and 25 years are not serious? 

Some of many prior recent related posts:

August 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Could enhanced FIRST STEP Act get more than 90 votes in the Senate if even brought up for a vote?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Hill piece from late Friday headlined "Sentencing reform deal heats up, pitting Trump against reliable allies." Here are excerpts (with emphasis added):

Negotiations on a criminal justice reform bill are pitting President Trump against some of his closest allies on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sent a public warning shot to the White House this week, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Trump should not support a “jailbreak” by reducing mandatory minimum sentences. “That foolish approach is not criminal justice reform. … [It would] undercut President Trump’s campaign promise to restore law and order,” Cotton wrote.

Besides Cotton, other reliable allies of the White House, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), are opposing the administration’s approach, which would combine a House-passed prison reform bill with changes to sentencing and mandatory minimums that have wide, bipartisan support in the Senate.

Supporters say completing the bill would give the administration a needed win heading into November's midterm elections. Cotton argues it would make Trump and the GOP look weak on crime.

White House officials and supporters of a deal have been talking with Republican holdouts to try to convince them to back the proposed compromise, which they say would add roughly four sentencing reform provisions into the House bill, which currently focuses on recidivism and not sentencing laws. The pending agreement is expected to add into the House bill lower mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug convictions and more exceptions for judges on applying mandatory minimums. It would also let judges avoid doubling up on convictions for drug offenders facing simultaneous charges, and retroactively apply the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which is aimed at reducing the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses.

A senior White House official said they had received largely positive feedback and have 30 to 32 locked down “yes” votes among Republican senators. The official offered hope that the number of GOP supporters could eventually grow as many as 40 to 46. “We're hopeful that we'll be able to bring everybody together to get this to a place where we have ... most of the Republicans ready to vote for it,” the official said...

Supporters are moving forward and trying to build support within the GOP conference, signaling they view Cotton as a surmountable outlier. “I view it like the handful of people who are trying to obstruct are kind of giving it their best shot and, again, at the end of the day, I think facts usually overcome scare tactics,” the senior White House official said.

If Cotton’s op-ed was meant to build opposition to the potential deal within the Senate Republican Conference, officials suggested it appeared to have backfired. The senior White House official said that nearly a dozen Republican senators had reached out in wake of the Wall Street Journal article to say they didn’t agree with Cotton. A second White House official confirmed the outreach.

But opposition from a small, but vocal, group of critics has been a years-long roadblock for criminal justice reform in the Senate, where GOP leadership has been reluctant to put a spotlight on intra-caucus fights.

In addition to Cotton, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) threatened to do everything within their power to block a 2015 criminal justice reform bill, which had the support of the White House. Hatch has since come on board with criminal justice legislation, and Sessions is now attorney general. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has warned him to “stay out” of the negotiations....

Republicans won’t be able to pass a criminal justice deal on their own. A separate Senate bill, spearheaded by Grassley and Durbin, has the support of 32 senators, including Democrats like Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.). The White House is hoping electoral politics won’t get in the way of them supporting the pending agreement. “[If] people vote against it, I think it would just be really bad vote for them because this bill does a lot of good things,” the senior White House official said of potential Democratic opposition....

Trump held an event on prison reform last week, and at a White House meeting earlier this month signaled support for criminal justice reform. The senior White House official said that while negotiations are ongoing and no final decision has been made, “there is a very strong chance” the president will support the final package.

“[That] means that a lot of the people will want to be with him on it,” the official said. “And again, they know that the president's very tough on crime and if he's supporting something then they know it's not going to be a soft on crime bill.”

But Cornyn appeared skeptical that Trump, despite his deep popularity with GOP voters, would be able to change the dynamics in the Senate. “I don’t think people are going to change their strongly held positions on the sentencing reform part,” he said. “So my goal is to achieve what’s possible."

Riffing on the quote from Senator Cornyn, it seems quite possible that 45 Senators or more from both parties will be inclined to support whatever version of the FIRST STEP Act gets to the floor of the Senate with the President's support.  As I said in a recent post here, and as this article confirms, the problem now is not getting enough votes in support of reform but rather on getting congressional leadership to settle on the particulars of a bill and finally allowing a vote on the Senate floor.

As the GOP heads into a challenging mid-term election, I think and hope that many members would see the FIRST STEP Act as an opportunity to demonstrate bipartisan leadership. And maybe, as he headline of this interesting Bustle article suggest, Prez Trump could have another one of his kids involved in advocacy efforts here: "Tiffany Trump's Georgetown Work Shows She Has An Interest In Criminal Justice Reform Too."  

Some of many prior recent related posts:

August 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Will Trump White House soon "deploy its assets ... to stump" for federal criminal justice reform? It may be critical.

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris headlined "Connect Beltway to America to get federal criminal justice reform done." Here are excerpts:

When it comes to excuses to pass over federal criminal justice reform, I have heard them all, from “it takes at least 10 years to pass legislation like this” to “there is no way move a criminal justice bill in an election year.” But the one that really burns me is “you cannot point to state success because the federal system is much more complicated.”

The arrogance of the Beltway is incredible.  Of the more than 2.3 million people serving time behind bars in this country, more than 1.3 million are housed in state prisons, and about 615,000 sit in local jails.  Only 225,000 are housed in a federal facility. The Texas prison system alone holds more inmates.  State prison systems deal with overcrowding, stifling budget cuts, and drug epidemics that show no signs of abating.  Because they can see and experience this crisis first hand, governors on the left and the right are passing strong criminal justice reforms that offer alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment programs, provide opportunities that put people back to work, and save millions of taxpayer dollars.

Now these governors are invading the federal reform effort, seeking to finally connect Beltway leaders to what is happening in their own backyards.  President Trump, in a savvy move, convened a criminal justice roundtable at his resort in New Jersey and invited Republican and Democratic governors from states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia, all of which have passed strong criminal justice reforms with bipartisan support that decrease incarcerated populations, improve reentry programs, and ultimately lower crime and recidivism.  This is all part of a strategy to take the fight to pass a federal bill straight to the people and away from the status quo in Washington....

Keenly aware that red states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky have made aggressive changes to their justice systems, including sentencing reforms and felony expungement laws, [Jared] Kushner has showed the president these success stories.  In this latest roundtable, Trump included the Democratic governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, who shared that reforms implemented in his state led to a 20 percent decrease in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, which frees up valuable resources to fight dangerous crimes and reduce recidivism.

While the public safety benefits of reform are undoubtedly impressive to a “tough on crime” president, the overwhelming public support for these issues must be equally attractive.  Voters across the country are looking to Congress to act. Polling from earlier this year shows that 75 percent of voters, a clear supermajority crossing all partisan, geographic, education, income, racial and ethnic boundaries, believe the criminal justice system needs to be reformed and support changes such as fixing our cash bail system and replacing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

In the final stretch to a Senate vote, do not be surprised to see this White House deploy its assets to the states to stump for a bill they know the American people want.  There will be folks from every walk of life lining up behind them, from business leaders and military veterans to civil rights advocates and faith leaders.  Just this week, people from 50 organizations of all political stripes and bipartisan senior legislative staff met to talk details. When the phone lines light up in offices all over Capitol Hill demanding a vote, Washington may well be out of excuses.

Candidly, I will be quite surprised if this White House were to deploy its assets to stump for reform, but I certainly hope this will happen.  I am fairly confident that if Prez Trump were to do a series of tweets in support of a federal criminal justice reform bill, that bill would have a much greater chance of getting to his desk.  And Prez Trump does not have to change minds about pending reforms: there is already overwhelming bipartisan support for the basic substance of nearly every serious sentencing and prison reform bill. 

The current challenge is  getting congressional leadership to settle on which version of which bill will be brought up for a vote. Senate leadership has been the bottleneck lately, and the White House surely could and should focus, publicly and privately, on advocacy toward leadership to settle on a bill and finally allow a vote.  (Notably, the FIRST STEP Act got 86% approval when it got to a vote in the House of Representatives, so it seems informed legislators are even more supportive of federal reform than the poll numbers.) 

This piece by Holly Harris highlights just why passage of federal criminal justice reform could be a huge win for this Administration, and I hope Prez Trump sees the potential political value to pushing reform over the finish-line.  Presidents always have unique powers and unique opportunities to grease the legislative process, and a congressional reform discussion that has been going strong for now five years with no tangible results can certainly uses as much grease as it can get. 

Some of many prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: I have just added to the title of this post after seeing this new Politico piece headlined "Criminal justice deal faces steep Senate hurdles despite Trump’s push."  Here is an excerpts that has me thinking reform does not get done unless and until the Trump White House puts all its might behind the effort:

Trump has stepped up his own calls for a deal on the prisons overhaul that the House passed earlier this year, holding two events so far this month.  And groups off the Hill say they're closing in on a path to pass the legislation through the Senate by adding some of the sentencing changes Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) spent years negotiating with Democrats.

But interviews with a dozen GOP senators show that those talks remain in a precarious state.  That’s because the handful of Republicans who have long protested reducing mandatory-minimum sentences leave Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) without any incentive to call up legislation that would split his conference.

One of those longtime critics of adding sentencing to the House-passed prisons bill bluntly predicted Thursday that McConnell would not “bring the bill to the floor any time soon.”

“I’m not sure that we can put together a deal,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said in an interview. “I’m not sure we should.”...

Close involvement from Trump will likely be required for the GOP to get past its internal schism over reducing mandatory minimum sentences as part of a prisons package. Grassley's bipartisan package of sentencing and prison reforms boasts 15 Republican cosponsors, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes even the narrower prisons-only approach the House has passed.

August 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 12, 2018

FAMM provides detailed review of SRCA sentencing provisions most likely to be added to FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this recent post, the latest buzz from inside the Beltway is that four sentencing reform provisions from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act might get added to the FIRST STEP Act in the Senate to produce a final federal criminal justice reform bill that will finally get voted on in both houses of Congress. Helpfully, the folks at FAMM have produced this extended document reviewing which SRCA sentencing provisions are seemingly in play.  The document is styled as a memo to Congress members and staff under the heading "Facts sheets explaining potential sentencing additions to FIRST STEP Act."  Here is part of its introduction:

In May, the U.S. House passed the FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682) by a vote of 360 to 59. Some Senate leaders have argued that any criminal justice reform bill considered by the Senate must include sentencing reform. Earlier this month, President Trump expressed a willingness to consider adding four sentencing reform provisions to the FIRST STEP Act.

As Members of Congress consider adding some commonsense sentencing provisions from the Senate Judiciary Committee-approved Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA, S. 1917), we thought it would be useful to provide some background on the four sentencing provisions under consideration. In the four factsheets that follow, we explain the problem that current sentencing law is creating, provide an example of how it is harming real people, share the proposed reform found in SRCA, and relay the potential financial impact based on studies conducted by the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. We recognize that the reforms included in SRCA might change during negotiations and that the impact of these reforms will change accordingly.

For those interested in a detailed (pro-reform) accounting of what sentencing reform provisions now seem to have a real chance of passage, this FAMM document is very much worth checking out. Also, here is a list of just some of the (too) many prior posts I have done about the policy and political debates over federal reforms just this year:

August 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Could a version of the FIRST STEP Act with sentencing reforms pass the Senate in a matter of weeks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this encouraging Thursday Washington Examiner piece headlined "Jared Kushner helps Trump pave rare bipartisan path to big win." Here are excerpts with a few lines emphasized:

Thursday’s roundtable at President Trump’s summer White House in New Jersey to address prison and sentencing reform with governor’s is the latest bid by top aide Jared Kushner to give his father-in-law a rare bipartisan victory on a once controversial issue.

In getting Trump to carve out part of his working vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Kushner and other officials are hoping to demonstrate how important the issues are to the president as he works to get a Senate vote in the next month.

Trump’s meeting this afternoon with governors, state attorneys general, and top aides is the latest in which he will endorse prison reform and he is also expected to open the door to sentencing reform, a sign to key senators that he is ready for a deal.

Just last week he met with Trump met with Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Chuck Grassley who are working legislation on sentencing and prison reform.

“We are trying to get a vote in the next two weeks,” said an administration official of the broad prison reform bill known as the First Step Act that passed the House overwhelmingly.

As he has on Middle East peace and other projects his father-in-law has given him, Kushner has worked overtime -- and always behind the scenes -- to build an unusual coalition in support of the reforms....

“There can’t be any doubt that by having this as the only major event on the president’s schedule that he is laser focused on this,” said one associate, who added, “We think that with this momentum and with the coalition behind it, that this can actually happen.”

Importantly, as I understand matters, the Senate would be voting on not just the prison reforms in the House version of the FIRST STEP Act, but also some sentencing reforms. Those reform are limited, but still quite significant, and they are outlined in this recent piece by Mark Holden.  And if this is brought up for a vote in the Senate, I do not think there is any real likelihood it would not pass.  Indeed, the question would be probably whether it might get even more than 80 votes.

If this really gets completely done in the coming weeks, I do think it will be right to give Prez Trump and his Administration a considerable amount of credit.  But that credit comes only if and when a bill is signed and the law is changed.  Remarkably, I am starting to get optimistic that this could happen pretty soon.

August 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Encouraging news from DC about prospects for prison reform with sentencing reform getting enacted in 2018

Though I am a very long way from DC right now (much closer to Russia, in fact, somewhere on this route), I had to find a way on-line to be sure to note the exciting federal criminal justice reform news reported here in The Hill under the headline "Trump gives thumbs up to prison sentencing reform bill at pivotal meeting."  Here are the details:

President Trump has told Republican senators that he’s open to a new proposal on prison and sentencing reform, giving new life to an issue that seemed hopelessly stalled on Capitol Hill.

The compromise presented to Trump by Republican senators at a White House meeting on Wednesday would combine the prison reform bill passed by the House in May — the First Step Act — with four sentencing reform provisions that have bipartisan Senate backing, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

A senior White House official described the president as “positively inclined” toward the compromise proposal. The source said Trump told GOP senators to “do some work with your colleagues” and “let's see where the Senate is and then come back to me with it.”...

The compromise offer was presented to Trump at a meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law; Shahira Knight, the new White House legislative affairs director; and White House chief of staff John Kelly also attended the White House meeting.

Attendees described Trump’s support for the initiative as a positive development for the effort to reduce mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. While getting a final bill to Trump would require a Senate vote and then winning House approval for the new package, a second source familiar with the meeting described it as “very successful.” “It’s not done until it’s done, but we made a lot of progress,” the source said.

Grassley said afterward that he believes prison reform and sentencing reform can be moved in tandem. “I think we made great progress so it doesn’t have to be broken up,” Grassley told reporters Thursday. “There seems to be an interest on the part of the White House now to keeping the bills together.”

Negotiators now think there’s a possibility of moving legislation through the Senate as soon as this month, though it’s more likely to wait until the lame-duck session after the midterm elections....

The emergent compromise proposal would make several technical changes to the House-passed First Step Act and merge it with four sentencing reforms from the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which has a large number of co-sponsors from both parties.

“The question is how little sentencing reform we can put in there without losing the Democrats and how much we can put in there without losing more than a handful of Republicans, and we think we’ve about cracked that formula,” said a person familiar with the internal talks who briefed The Hill.

The proposed compromise would lower lifetime mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug felony convictions to 25 years and reduce 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for similar offenders to 15 years. But in an effort to reach common ground, that reform would only apply to new sentences and not to people already in jail.

Another reform would free judges from having to ratchet up sentences for drug offenders convicted on simultaneous charges. A requirement known as the “stacking enhancement” forced judges to treat convictions on multiple charges as prior offenses and mandated harshly long punishments for nonviolent drug offenders. In another bid to broaden political support, this reform would not apply retroactively.

A third reform would apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which Congress passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses, retroactively. That law reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related crimes prospectively but only applied to new sentences. The reform now being discussed would retroactively reduce the disparity of old sentences.

The final reform would expand exceptions to the application of mandatory-minimum sentences to more people with criminal histories.

I am not counting any sentencing reform chickens before they hatch, but this description of the compromise combo FIRST STEP Act and SRCA would seem to make a lot of sense in light of various positions staked out on both sides of the aisle. And if Prez Trump signals support for such a reform package and is willing to make it a priority, I would now be inclined to predict this will get done this year. But because Prez Trump has never seemed a serious advocate for sentencing reform, and because his Attorney General likely dislikes all of this, and because the run-up and aftermath of an election can disrupt lots in DC, I am inclined to remain pessimistic about all of this until votes are being scheduled and taken.

August 4, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Poll suggests huge public support for FIRST STEP Act with lots of other interesting findings

Over the weekend I noticed this Hill piece reporting in its headline "Poll finds broad support for House-passed prison reform bill." Here are the details via :

The poll, conducted for Freedom Partners by the Charles Koch-backed group In Pursuit Of and provided exclusively to The Hill, found that 70 percent of likely voters approve of the First Step Act, which cleared the House by a 360-59 margin earlier this year. Only 14 percent said the Senate should not pass it, according to the poll that sampled Republicans, Democrats and voters who did not affiliate with either party.

Freedom Partners has put six-figures behind an ad campaign urging senators from both parties to support the legislation. They hope the poll results will prod Senate Republicans to take the bill up.

Passing prison reform is a top priority for the Kochs. There is frustration among the network of conservative donors and activists that the Senate has not moved to take up the bill, which aims to incentivize inmates to complete prison programs that might reduce their likelihood to commit crimes again when they are released.

“Voters broadly support the FIRST STEP Act and will hold senators accountable for failing to pass the bill,” said Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden. “It’s time for the Senate to do its job and send this bipartisan legislation to President Trump’s desk.”

The bill has 60 percent support among registered Republicans, according to the poll. Nearly half of likely voters – 47 percent – said they would have a more negative view of Senate Republicans if they don’t move to pass the bill....

The Freedom Partners survey of 1,759 likely voters was conducted online between July 18 and July 20 and has a 2.3 percent margin of error.

This press release provides a few more details about this poll as well as this link to a summary of key findings from the poll. These findings, in particular, should be encouraging to those hoping criminal justice reform will be a salient political issue this fall:

How important is it to reduce the number of people who are in prison in America today?

72% TOTAL IMPORTANT    28% TOTAL NOT IMPORTANT

28% Very important    44% Somewhat important

19% Not very important    9% Not at all important...

 

Thinking ahead to the midterm elections this November – how important to you is the issue of criminal justice reform as you decide who you’ll be voting for?

75% TOTAL IMPORTANT    25% TOTAL NOT IMPORTANT

25% Very important    50% Somewhat important

20% Not very important    5% Not at all important...

 

Would you be more or less likely to vote for a political candidate if you knew he or she supported criminal justice reform?

60% More likely to support candidate    32% No difference in support    8% Less likely to support candidate

July 30, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, July 27, 2018

"Those in Federal Prison and Their Families Can’t Wait for the Ideal Reform Bill"

The title of this post is the title of Shon Hopwood's new entry over at Prison Professors.   This piece is styled as a response to the this lengthy Hill commentary by DeAnna Hoskins, the president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, which assailed the FIRST STEP Act as "a step backward [that] invites a scary future" (which I discussed critically here).  I recommend folks read everything in full, and I will here reprint how Shon's piece concludes:

I speak to and receive emails from thousands of families with someone in federal prison.  These families almost invariably support First Step.  At the Reform Now rally outside Capitol Hill in early July, many of these families explained how First Step will significantly improve their family’s lives — whether by forcing the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide meaningful rehabilitation programs or housing their loved one closer to home.  The reform groups who oppose First Step weren’t present for the rally.  I wish they were. They’d have a better understanding of what makes the federal prison system uniquely harmful to those who are inside it, and how First Step will alleviate some of those harms.

The families who aren’t supportive of First Step are mostly those with loved ones serving really long sentences or life in prison, and this won’t help them get out of prison — even as it is likely to improve the federal prison system overall.  I empathize with their pain and frustration.  But retroactively applicable sentencing provisions has no chance of passing this year.  Not even the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was made retroactive when Democrats had a supermajority in Congress and the Presidency.  It is hard to imagine the current Congress somehow doing better.

First Step along with some sentencing additions is the best bill we can get now in the current political climate.  If we don’t take First Step now, we will be waiting at least another two years for any possibility of federal prison reform.  If the past thirty years is a guide, we are probably waiting much, much longer.  Given the stakes, there should be an urgency on all sides to get this done.

I understand that many people have strong feelings against the current President, and that undoubtedly drives some of the angst against First Step.  Yet there can be fights about every other issue without simultaneously rejecting a federal prison reform bill that provides meaningful help to those currently in prison and their families.

Some of many prior related posts:

July 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

An interesting political pitch for the FIRST STEP Act

Star-parkerStar Parker, a conservative commentator who is founder and president of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), has this notable new Townhall commentary under the headline "Senate Should Pass the First Step Act." In addition to praising the substantive provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, the commentary makes some interesting political points in an effort to convince GOP leaders in the Senate to move forward with the bill. Here are excerpts:

You would think that Senate Republicans would be rolling out the red carpet for the First Step Act, particularly given that it's an initiative that started in the White House. Unfortunately, that's not happening. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is not moving to embrace this bill because it doesn't including sentencing reform.

With all due respect to Senator Grassley, he's making a mistake. And as a result he's hurting his party and his country.

In all my years working in public policy, one lesson I have learned is that it is an invitation for failure to try to deal with a complex issue, one having a number of separate components, in a single huge, complicated piece of legislation. The result is either no action or a sweeping -- and bad -- law....

Everyone agrees we have a criminal justice problem. But like so many other areas, there is a woeful lack of agreement about what is causing the problem and how to solve it. And this brings us back to the incredible bipartisan passage of the First Step Act.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Grassley should see this as an opportunity for the Republican-controlled Congress to show it can act decisively on a major national problem. Holding up prison reform to add on the complex issue of sentencing reform will result in what I said above: either nothing will happen or we'll get one big unworkable bill.

Furthermore, prison reform has major racial implications. Blacks, who constitute 12 percent of the population, make up 33 percent of the prison population. Hispanics, who constitute 16 percent of the general population, make up 23 percent of the prison population.

It's no accident that the NAACP opposes the bill. Or that Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in The Washington Post against it. Or that two very politically ambitious black Democratic Senators, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, oppose it.

Passage of the First Step Act would show that Republicans care and can help a large part of minority America in distress. Black Democrats don't want this to happen.

Senate Republicans must keep an eye on retaining control in November. They should get on the same page with the White House and the House and pass the First Step Act.

Some of many prior related posts:

July 25, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Another attack on the FIRST STEP Act failing to acknowledge modern political realities

DeAnna Hoskins, the president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, has this lengthy Hill commentary assailing the FIRST STEP Act as "a step backward [that] invites a scary future." I find the claims in this commentary a bit scary, and here are excerpts with a few comments to follow:

By limiting “prison reform” to a combination of half-hearted credit time — which would leave people on home confinement or in halfway houses, rather than shorten sentences — and a reliance on risk assessment instruments that are steeped in racial bias, the FIRST STEP Act could hit the brakes on a nationwide movement to reform and redefine the justice system.

One of the most deceptive parts of this bill is that it creates the impression that people can earn time off of their sentence via new “credit time.” This is simply not true. This bill will keep people who earn credit time under the Bureau of Prisons’ control by replacing one form of incarceration with another.  The FIRST STEP Act does not offer a real path toward release and redemption.  Instead, it has the potential to increase the reach of the federal prison system via electronic monitoring and expanded home confinement, which is consistent with this administration’s efforts to increase the size of the federal prison population.

For those released from prison on credit time, an electronic shackle awaits, branding people with a tool that tracks their every movement, expands the carceral state into our neighborhoods and significantly lowers the threshold for reincarceration.  As with any for-profit industry, once privatization enters the market an agreement is made for the company to be guaranteed a certain level of profit margin. In order to profit from the FIRST STEP Act, these companies will be guaranteed a certain number of individuals to remain on electronic monitoring or home confinement, creating a bodies-for-sale system.

What’s more, this bill ensures that many people are excluded from eligibility to earn credit time.  The FIRST STEP Act calls for the creation and implementation of a risk assessment instrument to determine who is worthy.  Such assessments have been shown to perpetuate or exacerbate racial biases and institutionalize structural racism by relying on data such as “zip code” and “age at first arrest” — both signal over-policing of black people and communities of color, rather than risk of actual behavior....

There are some good aspects of this bill, including the prohibition of the abhorrent practice of shackling pregnant women in prison and the retroactive application of an increase in good-time credit from 47 to 54 days per year.  Even with these positive provisions, the rest of this bill widens the net of systemic harm.  The fact that this bill could move us a few inches forward is not nearly enough to mitigate the reality that the FIRST STEP Act is only a first step toward a devastating future.

We do not have a binary choice between the status quo and the FIRST STEP Act.  To the contrary, the very real possibility of overhauling and wholly transforming our criminal justice system exists, and needs to be pursued with unmitigated and tireless vigor of the movements we are seeing in cities, counties and states across the country.

The need and demand for reform are real.  The FIRST STEP Act is not only a step backward; it invites a scary future. We need good proposals that address the structural racism baked into our justice system.  We can pursue good proposals at all levels of government — proposals that are human-centered, values-driven, and that truly have an impact on decarcerating and decriminalizing communities across the country.

Though I think it reasonable to express concern about how elements of the FIRST STEP Act might be implemented, stating that this bill would bring a "devastating future" is disturbing hyperbole.  Moreover, as a number of former federal prisoners have stated, it is deeply misguided to suggest electronic monitoring and home confinement is functionally equivalent to continued confinement in federal prison.  Most fundamentally, the claim that there is "the very real possibility of overhauling and wholly transforming our criminal justice system" seems entirely disconnected from the reality that there has been prominent advocacy for federal criminal justice reforms for the last half-decade without a single bit of legislation getting through Congress.

Like the author here, I would like to see reform that goes beyond the FIRST STEP Act.  But broader reforms have be stalled by leaders in DC who are likely to be in place at least until 2020 if not later.  Hoping and waiting for something better leaves current prisoners and their families waiting and waiting and waiting.  And if the politics are really behind "overhauling and wholly transforming our criminal justice system" now or later, passage of the FIRST STEP Act seems very unlikely to change those politics.  But rather than seeing a politic consensus for "transforming our criminal justice system," I just see a lot of political division among advocates for reform that seems to be making achieving any reform that much harder. 

Some of many prior related posts:

July 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Notable GOP Senators talk up mens rea reform while FIRST STEP Act and SRCA languish in their chamber

Senators Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch have this notable new commentary in the Washington Examiner under the headline "Mens rea reform and the criminal justice reform constellation." Here are excerpts:

A growing chorus of voices from across the country and political spectrum are calling out for reforms to our nation’s criminal justice system, and rightfully so.  Our criminal justice system should be tough but fair.  Criminal behavior should be punished, but the punishment should fit the crime. And those we send to prison should be afforded opportunities to participate in programs that prepare them to rejoin society when they complete their sentences.

As Congress works on bills to improve fairness in sentencing and bolster programs to better prepare inmates for life after prison, we should not ignore the root problem of overcriminalization.  There are more than 4,500 criminal laws on the books and more regulatory crimes than the Congressional Research Service was able to count.  And when many of these crimes are drafted without clear criminal intent requirements, it becomes increasingly easy for unsuspecting Americans to be sent to jail for conduct they had no idea was against the law.

Mens rea reform, in addition to sentencing and prison reform, is an essential part of the criminal justice reform constellation.  We can do only so much to improve fairness in our nation’s criminal justice system if we continue to allow individuals to be sent to prison for conduct they did not know was unlawful, even when Congress has not specified that their crimes should be strict liability offenses.

Fairness and justice demand that we clarify our criminal laws.  Statutes and regulations that impose criminal penalties should be clearly written so they prevent and punish criminal conduct even as they the safeguard the liberty of the innocent.  That’s why it is important that Congress take up and pass the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2018, which we’ve introduced, to improve clarity in existing criminal laws and regulations and encourage greater care when crafting future ones.

Our bill recognizes that the mens rea standard that works for one crime might not be appropriate for another.  It improves on past proposals to impose a one-size-fits-all mens rea standard to all laws and regulations that lack such clarity.  Instead, it empowers Congress and federal agencies to fill in the gaps with the appropriate level of intent required to constitute a crime.  The bill calls on the federal government to identify the criminal statutes and regulations that lack a mens rea requirement.  This will allow Congress to clarify the mens rea standard in criminal statutes through the legislative process.  The bill then directs federal agencies to put in place a clear mens rea standard for all regulatory crimes through a transparent process that invites public input on what the appropriate mens rea standard should be. Under our bill, agencies have six years to issue new rules to clarify the required level of intent. If the agencies don’t offer this clarification, they won’t be able to enforce the regulation....

We firmly believe that mens rea reform is an important piece of the broader criminal justice reform landscape.  Together with the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which we both support, the Mens Rea Reform Act will improve fairness and clarity in our criminal justice system.

While I share the Senators affinity for mens rea reform, at this point I am eager to hear any news about any movement in the Senate with respect to the FIRST STEP Act or the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  One would hope that the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee (Grassley) and a powerful former chair (Hatch) could actually help get some legislation enacted, but the mysteries of government continue to mysterious prevent the passage of legislation that has widespread support in both houses of Congress.

It has now been nearly two months since the FIRST STEP passed the House by a huge margin (details here) and it has now been more than five months since the SRCA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a significant margin (details here). Prez Trump has suggested he will sign whatever bill gets delivered to his desk.  But as the summer marches on, I am struggling to remain optimistic that the full Senate will get to vote on any of these reform proposals anytime soon. Sigh.

July 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Intriguing comments about the politics and persons around FIRST STEP Act and federal criminal justice reform efforts

The Marshall Project has this notable new Q&A under the full headlined "Van Jones Answers His Critics: The CNN host defends his involvement with a controversial prison reform bill and the Trump White House." I recommend the piece in full, and here are snippets reflecting intriguing parts of Jones's thoughtful perspective on the politics and people impacting federal criminal justice reform efforts:

[W]e need a stable bipartisan consensus to undo mass incarceration. In order to get there, we have to break this logjam that existed under President Barack Obama and in Congress. When we had Obama in the White House and [former U.S. Attorneys] Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch in the Department of Justice, we had a pretty robust bill that I fought tooth and nail to try to get passed. It had sentencing reform, prison reform, and every other kind of reform in there. In the fall of 2016, a bunch of people said, “Well, let's not pass this right now. The Democrats are going to have an epic victory. We'll have Hillary Clinton, more Democrats, and we can get an even better bill.” You see what happened. The lesson I learned from that was take the reform you can get when you can get it and keep going....

[Debates over which bill to support] became more of a split between some of the inside-the-Beltway organizations that have a particular worldview that is important, versus a lot of the grassroots groups who are really dealing on a daily basis with incarcerated people looking at the actual content of the bill. There were black people and white people on all sides of that. So as somebody who has been frontline 25 years on criminal justice, you would want people to give you the benefit of the doubt. But if folks choose not to, that's just called democracy.

I get outraged when people like Topeka Sam, an African American woman who was incarcerated, brings a dozen formerly incarcerated women to the White House to advocate for reform and is attacked. I get outraged when Shaka Senghor, who did 19 years in prison and almost 10 years in solitary confinement, speaks up for the bill and gets attacked. On Facebook they were called sellouts, Uncle Toms. I don't think it's appropriate when formerly incarcerated African Americans are vilified this way....

Where is this strong bipartisan coalition for sentencing reform [that some claim exists]? I know that they were able to get the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act out of committee in judiciary, which is good on the Senate side, but there is zero chance that that bill is going to be brought for a vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in its present form, and there’s not even a strategy to get McConnell to check it out, that I can tell. A lot of the Republicans do want sentencing reform, but they can't start there with a critical mass of their other colleagues.

I think that because this is one of the very few areas of bipartisan agreement, there will be multiple opportunities to come back again on criminal justice reform and to make progress.... I would love to see sentencing reform. Fought for it my whole life. Fought for it before it was popular. I just didn't understand why some people in the Senate want us to try to carry a camel through a keyhole in the House. If they have the votes to get sentencing reform in the Senate, God bless them. We couldn't find those votes in the House. We had to carry through the House what we could carry through the House. Nobody would be happier than me to see sentencing reform taken up by either chamber. But we had to get through the House what we could get through the House.

Here's the irony: If sentencing reform does now get taken up, or it's introduced as a part of the First Step Act, or there's some amalgamation between the two and something does get passed with sentencing reform in it, it will only get passed because we got something more modest through the House first.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

"What Tocqueville Would Think of Today’s Criminal Justice Reforms"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting commentary authored by Emily Ferkaluk which leans on a historic figure while advocating for the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are excerpts:

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who toured American penitentiaries at the height of the 19th-century penal debate in order to help guide French penal reform, would commend us for the reform measures contained in the First Step Act.

In his report, “On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France,” Tocqueville stressed that any criminal justice reform must moderately balance two goals: preserving the rights of society, and preserving the rights of prisoners.  Society, he argued, has a right to promote and protect public safety and order by punishing those who break the law—and to regain at least some of the money it spends in doing so.  On the other hand, the prisoner has a right to an education that prepares him to re-enter society as a productive citizen.

Both rights are preserved through the right application of corrective justice — a balance of proportional retribution and rehabilitation.  The First Step Act protects both of these rights—the rights of society and of the prisoner — by proposing a recidivism program that conducts risk assessments of prisoners.  These assessments would weigh the likelihood of individual prisoners recommitting a crime....

Furthermore, time credit programs that are joined to a risk assessment system work because they let wardens and prison administrators determine whether a prisoner presents a low risk to the community.  Tocqueville would have approved of this kind of localized authority.  In fact, during his visit to America, he was pleasantly surprised at the amount of authority the superintendent of prisons wielded over prison discipline.  He believed superintendents were best suited to make those decisions, being the closest to prisoners and having observed their behavior and reformation.

Tocqueville also identified certain types of incentives that truly rehabilitate prisoners — particularly family-oriented incentives. His interviews with prisoners in solitary confinement in the Philadelphia Penitentiary led him to remark that “memories of their family have an extreme power over their souls,” thus disposing them to rehabilitation.

These very incentives are present in the First Step Act. One incentive is to be relocated to a facility closer to home. Another is to enroll prisoners in a program that gives them “family relationship building, structured parent-child interaction, and parenting skills.”  A third option is to allow certain prisoners to go home for pre-release custody.  All of these cohere with Tocqueville’s findings....

When Tocqueville was first inspecting American penitentiaries, only a handful of states (predominantly New York and Pennsylvania) had begun to implement new prison disciplines such as solitary confinement and prison labor.  These penal disciplines proved effective, and despite their relative newness, Tocqueville recommended the French adopt the same disciplines.

Tocqueville preferred democratic politics to theory, and action in one direction over endless debate.  Commenting on the penal reforms made by the people through their state legislatures, he said, “Perhaps this prudent and reserved reform, effected by an entire people, whose entire habits are practical, will be better than the hasty trials that would result from the enthusiasm of ardent minds and the seduction of theories.”

Tocqueville’s words of wisdom should encourage us to pass the proposed recidivism reform measures without fear of killing any future criminal justice reform.  This first step toward penal reform is not our last.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Large group of former prisoners urge Senate leaders to move forward with FIRST STEP Act

As reported in this article from The Hill, a "group of 40 former state and federal inmates is pushing Senate leaders to take up the White House-backed prison reform bill that has divided Democrats and liberal groups, as well as GOP senators." Here is more:

In a letter Wednesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the former prisoners argue the First Step Act, while modest, offers some meaningful reforms....

The former inmates say they know the bill isn’t perfect, but it’s something. “All of us would change the bill in different ways and many of us wished it addressed excessive federal mandatory minimum sentences,” they wrote.  “But we also know that the bill would provide some long overdue relief and hope to more than 180,000 people in federal prison and millions of their family members and loved ones on the outside.”...

Supporters of prison reform say demands for all or nothing is the wrong approach. “We’ve been disturbed by some of the comments we’ve heard that doing nothing is better than doing something and that is not at all what we hear from the tens of thousands of prisoners we’re in touch with,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families against Mandatory Minimums, who spent one-and-a-half years in federal prison. “It’s also inconsistent with our own experiences being in federal prisons and knowing how much reform is needed. Waiting to do anything until you get everything is deeply misguided.”

The full letter and the list of signatories is available at this link. Here is an excerpt of a missive that merits a full read:

Despite the bill’s clear benefits, we have heard some people suggest it would be better for Congress to do nothing rather than pass this bill.  Such talk reflects a disturbing detachment from the hardships that so many families are experiencing today because of our counterproductive federal sentencing and prison policies.

While we do not claim to speak for all people who are serving time in federal prison or their families, we (or the organizations at which we work) are in touch with tens of thousands of these incarcerated individuals and their families every week.  Many of us still have friends and loved ones behind bars.  The people we talk to have no use for abstract debates about whether to pass comprehensive or narrow reform, speculative theories about how passing reform today might impact future reform or, worst of all, political gamesmanship.  These families just need some help.  They shouldn’t have to wait any longer.

We also know from our personal experience that meaningful programming, educational, and job training opportunities in the federal system are lacking.  All too often people are warehoused for decades with no hope.  We know that too many parents are incarcerated so far away from their children that they rarely get to visit them — just imagine seeing your kids once or twice a year, if that.  Going without the hugs and kisses of our loved ones for weeks and months was the most difficult part about being in prison.  We know others who have gone for years without that critical physical contact.  We also know that the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ incorrect calculation of good time credit has deprived people of shortening their lengthy prison sentences.  If anyone tells you these reforms are not “real” or “meaningful” to vulnerable families and individuals across the country, they simply don’t know what they are talking about.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Disconcerting update on Senate's (lack of) progress on federal statutory criminal justice reforms

The Hill this morning has this extended article under the headline "Senate grapples with prison reform bill." The piece reinforces my fear that criminal justice reform efforts are on the brink of stalling in the upper chamber of Congress. Here are excerpts:

Senate negotiators are warning they are not close to a deal that would allow the prison reform bill to move quickly.

Instead, the fight is pitting two influential GOP senators — Cornyn and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman — against each other as they jockey for competing bills. “We’ve got work to do here on building consensus … but right now we don’t have it,” Cornyn said last week about what happens to prison reform in the Senate.

The GOP divisions could scuttle any chance that the Trump-backed legislation becomes law this year, with leadership unlikely to bring up legislation that would highlight divisions within their own party ahead of the midterm elections. Both Cornyn and Grassley are signaling they plan to press forward with trying to build support for their own separate bills once the Senate returns to Washington, D.C., next week.

Asked if he would budge on his opposition to a prison reform–only bill, Grassley responded, “No.” “We’re going to take up my bill. Or I should say, my bipartisan bill that’s got 28 co-sponsors — equal number Republicans and Democrats....  What the House does through that legislation is about the equivalent of a spit in the ocean compared to what the problem is of too much imprisonment,” Grassley added.

Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat, have introduced broad criminal justice reform legislation that would pair prison reforms to changes in sentencing, including reductions in mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses while increasing mandatory minimums for other offenses. Both senators say they’ve made a deal not to separate the prison and sentencing reform components despite pressure from the White House. But that bill is unlikely to be taken up given GOP control of Congress and opposition from key members of the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was an outspoken opponent of the criminal justice reform bill when he served in the Senate.

Grassley acknowledged that he has not convinced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the criminal justice reform bill to the floor. “You’ve got to remember that McConnell doesn’t like the bill, and all I can say is that you ought to let a Republican president who needs a big, bipartisan victory have a bipartisan victory,” he said.

The Kentucky Republican did not move criminal justice reform legislation in 2015 or 2016 amid vocal pushback from four GOP senators. The then-Obama administration supported the bill, and senators in both parties said they had 60 votes to pass it. Supporters of the narrower prison reform–only legislation are seizing on the opposition from key Republicans and the Trump administration as they push for their bill....

Cornyn added that the decision boils down to either passing prison reform or accepting that Congress will take no action for the foreseeable future in the criminal justice space. But it’s unclear if McConnell would be willing to move a bill without Grassley’s support....

And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate, is privately raising concerns about the bill. A spokeswoman for the senator said Cotton has “concerns with provisions in the bill pertaining to lenient treatment for heroin and fentanyl traffickers.” Cotton, Sessions and GOP Sens. David Perdue (Ga.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) were a small but vocal group of Republicans senators deeply opposed to broader criminal justice legislation that included both prison reform and changes to mandatory minimum sentencing.

Cornyn acknowledged that he has spoken to Cotton about trying to address his issues with the prison reform bill. “I’ve told him we’re going to work with him and come up with something that I think he’ll be able to support,” Cornyn said, “but he did express some concerns.”

Some of many prior related posts:

May 30, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

An (encouraging?) update on the state of federal criminal justice reform in US Senate

The New York Times has this new article, headlined "Why Some Senators Who Want a Criminal Justice Overhaul Oppose a Prisons Bill," reporting on the latest state of debate over federal statutory criminal justice reforms. The report is a bit encouraging, though also a bit worrisome.  Here are highlights:

In a private huddle on Wednesday on the Senate floor, a group of senators corralled Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, and asked for time for a last-ditch negotiation to try to find an acceptable compromise.  Quite rightly, backers of changes in mandatory minimum laws fear that this may be the only chance for years to push a major criminal justice measure through Congress and that sentencing revisions — a more politically difficult lift — will languish if legislation aimed at reducing prison recidivism becomes law on its own.

“You don’t get many opportunities around here to do anything meaningful or substantive,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and a chief author of the sentencing provisions. “Let’s not waste this one. Let’s get this right.”

Mr. Durbin has a powerful ally in Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Grassley came around slowly to sentencing changes, but once he got on board, he has been committed. He warned again last week that no criminal justice measure can pass the Senate without new flexibility in mandatory minimum sentences. “It’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Grassley said in a speech.

Mr. McConnell could try to go around Mr. Grassley and advance the House measure, which passed 360 to 59.  It allocates $50 million a year over five years for job training, education and mental health and drug treatment, and provides incentives for prisoners to take part in the programs.  But Mr. Grassley has been Mr. McConnell’s dedicated partner in pushing judicial nominations through the Senate — and in blocking President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick B. Garland in 2016.  His opposition would be an embarrassing obstacle.  Not to mention that Mr. McConnell is not that keen on criminal justice legislation in general, and he would probably be reluctant to provoke a midterm election season battle over a measure for which he has little personal enthusiasm. He refused to put the broad prison and sentencing bill to a vote in the last Congress despite bipartisan support because of objections from conservatives, including Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now the attorney general.

In his meeting on the floor with senators including Mr. Durbin, Mr. Grassley and John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican and a chief sponsor of the prison bill, Mr. McConnell was noncommittal but left open the prospect of moving ahead with a bill if an agreement could be reached.  “I said, ‘Look, guys, if you all can get your act together and come up with something that you’re comfortable with, that the president will sign, I’d be willing to take a look at it,’ ” Mr. McConnell said in an interview with The New York Times. But he said he was not interested in wasting the Senate’s time.

“What I’m not willing to do, just to refresh your memory from a couple of months ago, is have a freewheeling debate like we did on immigration for a whole week,” Mr. McConnell said. “We squandered a week and nothing happened. So I’m in the business of trying to make a law, not make a point.”

Mr. Durbin and other Senate backers of the sentencing changes believe they can make some relatively modest additions to the prison legislation to achieve some but not all of their goals.  They are focused on narrowing the definition of crimes that can prompt long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and on cutting the length of some of the required sentences.  They say that such changes would have a much more consequential effect on easing the United States’ mass incarceration than solely focusing on recidivism. “We might not get everything we want, but there is some sentencing reform we can achieve with this bill,” said Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah.

But others believe that throwing sentencing provisions into the mix will kill the prison bill, particularly with the midterm elections looming.  The sentencing changes have previously proved an impossible sell to conservative Republicans who believe the reductions in mandatory minimums make them look soft on crime.  It was that previous divide that kept Mr. McConnell from moving ahead with the more comprehensive version.

Backers of the prison bill, which is titled the First Step Act, say that Congress should take what it can get immediately and continue to press ahead on the more challenging sentencing changes. “The First Step Act is not the end,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York and an author of the measure. “It’s not even the beginning of the end. It’s simply the end of the beginning on a journey undertaken to eradicate our mass incarceration epidemic in America.”

Those pursuing a more comprehensive approach say that the consideration of the prison bill alone could doom their efforts because it will allow lawmakers and the White House to claim they acted on criminal justice without getting at the real issue.  “It is one thing to say we are going to open the door an inch wider for those wanting to leave prison while ignoring the fact that they are flooding in through the front door,” Mr. Durbin said.

Senators now have what appears to be a slight opening to fashion a compromise they can try to sell to skeptical and resistant colleagues.  If they fail, proponents of the prison legislation will no doubt begin clamoring for action on their measure, setting up a showdown with the originators of the criminal justice system proposal over what constitutes true reform.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE:  This new commentary authored by Derek Cohen, headlined "Prison reform is worth fighting for in the Senate," makes the case for the FIRST STEP Act. Eugene Robinson has authored this distinct commentary making a somewhat different pitch for the bill under the headline "Prison reform bill isn't perfect, but it's a First Step."

May 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

FIRST STEP Act passes US House of Representatives by vote of 360-59(!), but its fate in Senate remains uncertain

The prospect of at least partial federal statutory criminal justice reform got that much brighter this afternoon when the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the FIRST STEP Act.  The vote was 360-59, with Republicans voting 226 to 2 in favor of the bill (not doubt in part because of Prez Trump's strong advocacy for prison reform), and Democrats voting 134 to 57 in favor of the bill. Democratic opposition was certainly based on the failure of the bill to include any sentencing reforms, and this Reason article highlights why this reality might bode ill for the bill's prospects in the Senate.  The Reason piece has this fitting headline: "Prison Reform Bill Passes The House; Is Prison Reform Dead? The House passed a major, bipartisan prison reform bill backed by the White House, but it’s being attacked from all sides."  Here are excerpts:

The House passed legislation that would introduce several significant reforms to the federal prison system today, but the bill's future is uncertain and its passage has openly divided a criminal justice coalition that has worked together, at least in public, for the past several years.

The FIRST STEP Act, which includes a number of substantive changes to the federal prison and reentry system, passed by a vote of 360-59 and now goes to the Senate, but advancing to the White House is not a sure thing. Democrats are split on it, old-school conservatives are drumming up opposition from law enforcement groups, and progressive advocacy groups are attacking it from the left. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Republican pointman on criminal justice reform, says the bill is dead in the water unless it includes major reforms to federal sentencing law as well.

Trying to keep the whole thing from falling apart are a bipartisan group of House members, the White House—where prison reform has been a priority for President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner—and criminal justice groups who say some progress is better than none.

"I think unfortunately there are groups that would like to see sentencing reform happen right now and are not willing to settle for less," says Jessica Jackson Sloan, co-founder of #Cut50, a group that works to lower the U.S. prison population. "In some ways it's strategic because they helped us to make this bill as good as it can be, but at this point it's splitting the Democrat vote and we need a strong show of support to have this taken up in the Senate."...

The bill has sharply divided Democrats. On one side is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the bill's co-sponsor, and others who say it would provide better conditions and the possibility of earlier release for the roughly 180,000 inmates serving time in federal prison. "Any objective reading of this bill is that it will improve inmates' quality of life," Jeffries said on the House floor prior to the vote.

On the other side are Democrats who say the good provisions in the bill are outweighed by core concerns over how the overcrowded, underfunded Bureau of Prisons system would handle the new programs and changes. In a "dear colleague" letter released last week, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tx.) wrote that the reforms would fail without broader sentencing reforms....

Meanwhile in the Senate, Grassley and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors are pushing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which includes reductions to federal mandatory minimum sentences. The bill is the result of years of negotiation between Senate Republicans and Democrats, and the lead negotiators don't want to see their work languish.

"With the President's encouragement, I believe we can reach a deal on criminal justice reform," Grassley said in a statement Tuesday. "For that deal to pass the Senate, it must include sentencing reform. This is necessary for practical as well as political reasons."

However, sentencing reform is a non-starter for the White House, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a staunch opponent of criminal justice reforms — holds sway....

For supporters of the bill, the last few months have felt like an unending game of whack-a-mole. "One obstacle pops up and you knock it down," says Holly Harris, Executive Director at the U.S. Justice Action Network. "This has been a delicate dance from the beginning.  I think this will be the most well-vetted bill that Congress has seen in years. It's been a long time coming, and those who stand in the way of progress, those will be the losers in this situation."

Some of many prior related posts:

May 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 21, 2018

On eve of planned House vote on FIRST STEP Act, NY Times editorial misguidedly asserts a "partial bill could end up being worse than nothing"

The on-going debate over competing proposals for federal statutory criminal justice reform continues to fascinate me, but I am getting ever more troubled by suggestions from certain folks that the FIRST STEP Act is so bad and that the Sentencing Reform & Corrections Act is a so much better.  This new New York Times editorial, headlined "The Right Way to Fix the Prisons," reflects this thinking, and here are excerpts with passages stressed that particularly concern me:

For more than a decade, states of every political hue — from Texas and Louisiana to Connecticut and California — have been overhauling their criminal justice systems, to reverse the effects of decades of harsh and counterproductive policies.  But Congress has watched this revolution from the sidelines, thanks to reactionary lawmakers, including Mr. Sessions when he was in the Senate.  Comprehensive federal legislation has been foiled again and again, as states forge ahead, reducing both prison populations and crime rates through bipartisan reforms....

One bill backed by the White House, known as the First Step Act, would improve some prison conditions and help smooth the path to re-entry for people behind bars. It would, for example, require that inmates be housed within 500 miles of their families, prohibit the brutal but disturbingly common practice of shackling pregnant women and expand rehabilitative programs in which prisoners can participate to earn good-time credits.  These are all important and long-overdue fixes to existing law.

But the bill would leave it up to individual prison wardens to decide who gets to use their credits and when, which means inmates would be treated differently based on where they’re locked up.  The bill also restricts early release to halfway houses, even though as many as 40 percent of people behind bars pose no risk to public safety, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, and would do fine with less intensive oversight, such as electronic monitoring.  On top of that, federal halfway houses are so underfunded that even inmates who are eligible for immediate release can’t go anywhere, because there aren’t enough beds available.

The biggest problem with the First Step Act, however, isn’t what’s in it; it’s what’s left out.  Specifically, sentencing reform.  Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, like mandatory minimums of 10 or 20 years even for low-level drug crimes, have been among the main drivers of the nation’s exploding prison population....

Mr. Grassley is sponsoring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce the harshest sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and give judges more discretion to issue lighter sentences.  The bill nearly passed Congress in 2016, only to be killed by then-Senator Jeff Sessions.... Mr. Grassley’s bill has the support of top senators of both parties, as well as law-enforcement leaders and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil-rights organizations.  It’s not perfect, but it’s far preferable to the First Step Act, which could get a vote in the House as soon as this week.

Meanwhile, liberal backers of the First Step Act, like Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, argue that it’s better than nothing, especially in the current political environment. “We have a Republican president. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Mr. Jeffries wrote in letter to his colleagues on Friday. “Those are the facts.”

He’s right.  And yet a partial bill could end up being worse than nothing, especially if its benefits don’t live up to expectations, and if Congress, which has many other pressing matters to attend to, decides it’s had enough of the topic.  “Get a bill to my desk,” Mr. Trump said on Friday. “I will sign it.” If he means this, and if he genuinely cares about reforming the federal justice system, he’ll demand a bill that addresses the system’s most pressing problems.

Though this Times editorial references Rep. Hakeem Jeffries' extended letter defending the FIRST STEP Act, I wonder if the details of this important missive was fully understood.  That letter highlights that many of the prison reform provisions are MUCH improved in the FIRST STEP Act as compared to the SRCA.  Of particularly importance, the FIRST STEP Act includes the "Good Time Credit" fix, which serves functionally as a 2% across the board cut to prison terms for all current and all future federal prisoners.  There is no proper way to claim that a permanent and retroactive 2% cut in all federal prison terms "could end up being worse than nothing."  Moreover, it bears noting that the SRCA is anything but major sentencing reform, as it is only forecast to impact less than 5% of all cases annually under the US Sentencing Commission's estimates.  

In other words, the SRCA offers a worse version of prison reform cobbled together with a weak version of sentencing reform.  Even on the substantive merits, I am not sure I would prefer SRCA to the FIRST STEP Act.  (And of course, Congress has been trying to pass variant on the SRCA for now nearly half a decade to no avail.)   Most critically, the passage of the SRCA would be much more likely to bring what the NY Times fears, namely a reform bill that does not live up to expectations and yet allows Congress to feel it can move on after having done something "comprehensive."  In contrast, the FIRST STEP Act, if passed, will be in both name and spirit just what is needed here: a real improvement that is widely understood as only the first of many needed steps toward fixing a deeply flawed federal sentencing and prison system.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: This Politico article from Monday night, headlined "Trump-backed prisons bill DOA in the Senate," suggests that neither the FIRST STEP Act or the SRCA has much of a chance to make it through the Senate no matter what happens in the House.  Though the headline of this Politico piece is disconcerting, the full article is not quite so pessimistic and reinforces that Judiciary Chair Senator Chuck Grassley and Senate Leader Senator McConnell are the critical players for the future of any federal statutory criminal justice reforms for the foreseeable future. 

May 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The latest political back and forth, on both sides of the aisle, as federal prison reform efforts gain momentum

Politico has two fascinating new articles about on-going political debates and maneuvering surrounding the FIRST STEP Act.  That proposal, as reported here, received a 25-5 vote in favor in the House Judiciary Committee ten days ago, and it seems to be the top federal criminal justice reform bill with a real chance to get to the desk of Prez Trump in the coming months. Here are the full headlines and the start of each Politico article:

"Trump pushes for prison reform bill that divides Democrats: The split among Democrats over whether to support a narrow bill or push for sentencing reductions spilled into the open on Friday":

President Donald Trump on Friday embraced a bipartisan prison reform proposal, but a sharp divide among Democrats on the issue threatens to undermine the deal.  The discord was on display Friday as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York circulated a scathing letter accusing fellow Democrats of trying to tank the effort by waging an opposition campaign “riddled with factual inaccuracies.” At issue is whether to move ahead with a more narrow overhaul or to hold out for a broader criminal justice bill that includes sentencing reductions.

Trump vowed in his remarks that his administration would make circumstances "far, far, far greater than ever before" for former prisoners looking to rebuild their lives.  But other leading Democrats are fighting Jeffries' approach, pushing for the sentencing reductions, which are opposed by the Trump administration. Jeffries' rebuke came in response to a letter [posted here] criticizing the narrower prisons bill circulated on Thursday by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), among others.

"Cotton jolts prison reform negotiations":

Multiple law enforcement groups say Sen. Tom Cotton’s office approached them about opposing a bipartisan prison reform bill — a key legislative priority for President Donald Trump — according to emails reviewed by POLITICO.

Cotton’s office says it made no direct request for groups to oppose the bill. But the outreach from the Arkansas Republican, one of Trump's closest allies in Congress, has left supporters of the prison reform effort suspicious that he is trying to tank the Trump-backed legislation before it reaches the Senate.

Cotton is a stalwart critic of broader criminal justice overhaul proposals but has yet to publicly come out against the narrower, prison-focused approach that Trump is backing. However, the emails reviewed by POLITICO show at least two leading law enforcement groups discussing a call by Cotton’s office this week for letters of opposition on prison reform ahead of a White House summit Friday on the issue.

In one instance, the request from Cotton’s camp appears to have lost the prisons bill a supporter: The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which had declared its endorsement in February, wrote to House and Senate Republican leaders on Friday announcing it was reversing that position and would oppose the prison reform bill, citing changes made to the measure in recent weeks. A member of the organization said Cotton’s office had asked the group to send a letter of opposition, according to one of the emails reviewed by POLITICO. The FLEOA did not return a request for comment.

In a separate email shared with POLITICO, another top law enforcement group said it and other similar organizations had been contacted by Cotton’s office with a request to oppose the bill in writing.

Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler said the office had not directly requested any public opposition. “Senator Cotton believes it’s important that we get prison reform right, and that any legislation must fully protect law-abiding Americans. He’s consulted with Arkansans and several law enforcement groups and is actively working with his colleagues to address his concerns with the current bill,” Tabler said in a statement.

I suspect that there are not many examples of Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Kamala voting similarly on a high-profile piece of legislation, but the latest news and developments concerning federal criminal justice reform suggests they may both end up voting no (albeit for different reasons) if and when the FIRST STEP Act comes up for a vote in the Senate. Interesting times.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Five prominent congressional Democrats write in opposition to federal statutory prison reform without broader sentencing reform

As reported in this Politico piece, a set of "powerful Democrats stepped up their opposition campaign against a bipartisan bill on prison reform via a lengthy letter Thursday, their latest attempt to stamp out momentum for the proposal before it hits the House floor next week." Here is more:

The Democrats’ five-page opposition letter, which describes the bill as a “step backwards,” is just the latest volley in an ongoing battle over how far Congress should go this year to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system.  The legislation is backed by the White House and could be the last real chance for a bipartisan success — no easy feat in a contentious election year — but has several key opponents, particularly in the Senate.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the revered civil rights leader and one of the most influential members of the House Democratic Caucus, signed on to the letter.  Other Democrats already known to be opposed to the prison bill also added their names: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

“We write to express our serious concerns with the First Step Act, legislation that purports to reform federal prisons but which would in fact be a step backwards,” they wrote. They go on to say that the bill, which would provide training programs for prisoners that are aimed at reducing repeat offenses, could actually have the opposite effect by putting in place policies that are more discriminatory toward inmates of color.

The letter — particularly Lewis’ opposition — could be a significant blow to efforts by the bill’s supporters to round up support ahead of an expected floor vote next week.  Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), lead authors of the push for prison reform, have been meeting with members since the bill sailed out of committee last week....

The letter takes several shots at the prison reform proposal, saying that it doesn’t provide enough funding to be effective and that Sessions, a vocal opponent of criminal justice reform, would have far too much autonomy over the new programs.

The bill has strong Republican support in the House — all but one Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, including several far-right members, backed the proposal. But the legislation has divided Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Lewis’ opposition to the bill could be particularly influential for Democrats deciding how to vote.  But the bill’s authors can also point to several prominent backers on their side, including CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading progressive.

The full five-page "Dear Colleague" letter is available at this link, and it reiterates a series of arguments that the progressive opponents of prison reform have been making for months. As I have said before, though I see merit in many of the criticisms of prison-only reform efforts, I struggle to see any path forward for more robust reforms in the immediate future.  (There is also the irony that the prison-reform provisions they criticize in the FIRST STEP Act also appear in the broader sentencing reform bill they promote as an alternative.) 

As I noted in this recent post, broader reforms have now been robustly discussed for the better part of a decade and they did not become law even when there was a supportive Prez and Attorney General.  Perhaps the authors of this letter have a viable plan for getting a better bill to the desk of the Prez and signed into law, but I know I am more than tired of waiting to see any kind of serious criminal justice reform passed by Congress.  (Keep in mind it has been a full eight years since the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the last notable statutory sentencing or prison reform, and that law only addressed one crime that makes up now less than 5% of the federal caseload.)

The strategy of hoping for more favorable political conditions for broader sentencing reform strikes me as an especially risky strategy given AG Jeff Sessions' obvious disaffinity for any reforms and his ability and eagerness to use any crime data and developments to make the case against reform.  If crime data in the coming months show a continued rise in crime, AG Sessions is sure to argue that cutting sentences at a time of rising crime is misguided; if data instead show a new decline, AG Sessions is sure to assert that his policy changes have been efficacious and that current law preserves the status quo. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, 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 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Puzzling through the current politics of pursuing federal statutory criminal justice reforms

Rolling Stone has this notable new report on the latest politics surround federal criminal justice reform efforts under the headline "'We Don't Have to Worry About Senator Sessions': A look inside the Congressional battle for criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts:

Less than one month ago, there was no hope for any meaningful criminal justice reform to make its way out of this Republican-controlled Congress. But last week a large, bipartisan block of members of the House Judiciary Committee passed a narrow prison reform bill aimed at stemming the recidivism rate. That tees it up for a floor vote, even as many political watchers have predicted most major legislative efforts will be put on hold until after voters go to their polling booths in November.

"This is just a money and morals issue for me," Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who is one of the bill's lead authors, tells Rolling Stone.  "It's about money that we're saving by not only redirecting that in our prison system, but also the moral aspect that everybody deserves a second chance."

Collins was able to revive the effort by massaging the bill with his ally Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who represents Brooklyn and Queens and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.  The legislation sailed through their House committee by a lopsided 25-5 vote, but it faces stiff opposition in the Senate from those who want it to go much further in overhauling the nation's system of mandatory minimum prison sentences that critics say constrain the nation's judges and have left prisons brimming with nonviolent drug offenders.

"I'm disappointed, but it doesn't change anything that we have to do over here," Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tells Rolling Stone. "[Senate Minority Whip Dick] Durbin and I are working together to make sure that if there's going to be anything done on criminal justice reform, it's going to contain sentencing reform."...

Collins says they were able to revive the bill in the House because they narrowed its scope to win over Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "We're not dealing with sentencing reform at this point, and he understood that," Collins said.

In response to reports that Sessions supported the measure, a DOJ official tells Rolling Stone that Sessions did not, in fact, sign off on the House bill, and that he opposes it.  The official refused to elaborate on reasons why.

But Grassley maintains the attorney general is irrelevant on the issue – even though he's the top law enforcement official in the nation. "We don't have to worry about Senator Sessions," Grassley tells Rolling Stone. "Why's that?"

"We don't have to worry about Senator Sessions," he repeated. "You don't have to know why. We just don't have to worry about him."  Grassley's staff refused to answer questions as to whether the senator has been assured that Trump would sign a mandatory minimum bill over Sessions' protest, or, on a more sinister note, whether Grassley believes Sessions will remain in his current position as attorney general.

Independent of Sessions, however, it's unclear whether there's enough support in Congress to pass criminal justice reform that leaves mandatory minimums untouched. Supporters of the House bill argue that doing anything to help current prisoners escape the incarceration cycle is better than not sitting idly by.

"[Sessions] is an impediment, and I'd suspect Trump's people are basically against sentencing reform," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) tells Rolling Stone. "To get sentencing reform is probably going to necessitate a Democratic Congress, so that'll come next year. There's no reason to have people sit in a jail for another year when they don't need to be."

To review: it seems we do not know if AG Sessions is formally for or against the prison reform bill, the FIRST STEP Act, that passed the House Judiciary Committee last week, and we do not know if Senate Judiciary Committee leaders (or other Senators) may be willing to move forward with this FIRST STEP Act. I continue to fear AG Sessions' general opposition to any meaningful reforms and Senate leaders' eagerness for sentencing reforms may mean nothing gets done to bring any relief to any federal defendant anytime soon.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Mapping out the politics for the path forward for federal prison (and sentencing?) reform

I am unsure how big a deal to make out of the passage of the FIRST STEP Act out of the House Judiciary Committee today (discussed here) because I am not sure it create much more confidence about the chance of the Senate moving forward with a form of federal criminal justice reform that can actually become law.  This new Politico article discusses the political uncertainty that is now the reality:

Congress on Wednesday edged closer to a rare bipartisan achievement during a hotly contested election year after a House panel voted overwhelmingly to send a prison reform plan to the floor — despite persistent internal GOP tensions in the Senate over the White House-backed bill.

The prison legislation, a key priority of Jared Kushner, won easy approval in the House Judiciary Committee.  It was a striking turnabout after backers scrapped a vote on an earlier version two weeks ago amid waning support.  But the bill’s lopsided 25-5 vote masked ongoing disputes among Senate Republicans and House Democrats over its omission of sentencing reforms opposed by President Donald Trump. Critics of the measure say those sentencing reforms are crucial to any deal.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has allied with Democratic supporters of a broader criminal justice package that includes both sentencing and prison reform provisions. GOP leaders in both chambers want to instead move the narrower prison bill, which would authorize training for prisoners that’s aimed at reducing recidivism rates.

As the House panel moved to okay the bill, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) — a previous backer of the broader criminal justice overhaul who has narrowed his sights to prison reform — said he hoped to negotiate with Grassley on a path forward....

Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, his lead Democratic partner on the Senate criminal justice package, said Wednesday that they were “encouraged” by the House’s progress but giving no ground on their position. “For any criminal justice reform proposal to win approval in the Senate, it must include these sentencing reforms,” Grassley and Durbin said in a statement.

Lobbying on the House prison bill also has become contentious in recent weeks, pitting one of the legislation’s lead cosponsors, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), against the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, fellow New York Rep. Jerry Nadler. Jeffries has worked for months with Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) on the bill, omitting the sentencing provisions that are a nonstarter with the White House in part because of longstanding opposition from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Nadler took part in a Tuesday meeting with opponents of the legislation and made an impassioned plea to delay consideration of the bill during the markup. Jeffries, however, downplayed the tension after the bill sailed through the judiciary panel. He said everyone involved in the bill supports addressing sentencing laws; the disagreement is over when that should happen. “Mass incarceration has been with us for almost 40 years. It’s going to take more than one singular legislative magic wand to eradicate it,” Jeffries said in an interview.

“We all agree that sentencing reform should be a part of any broad criminal justice reform effort that takes place. The First Step Act represents the beginning of the end of overcriminalization in America.”

A House floor vote on the bill is possible before the Memorial Day recess, according to multiple sources. But the proposal still faces formidable foes, from powerful civil rights groups like the ACLU and key senators such as Grassley and Durbin. Dozens of advocacy groups, including the NAACP, sent another letter opposing the prison bill to House members on Tuesday.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another supporter of the broader criminal justice package, reiterated in a Tuesday interview that “I want to see sentencing reform and prison reform move together, and I worry that this bill doesn’t” make that happen. Booker met Monday night to discuss strategy on the bill with Durbin, Jeffries, Nadler, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). But supporters of the broader and narrower approaches to criminal justice left entrenched in their positions, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.... The bill, if successful, would likely be the last major bipartisan effort to clear Congress before the election. And it would be a major victory for Kushner, who has failed to score any significant wins in the White House, despite a disparate policy portfolio that has included everything from bringing peace to the Middle East to tackling the nation’s opioid crisis.

“The key for this is a realization that perfect doesn’t exist on the Hill,” Collins said in an interview. “Although we want to have done some more, this is a very valid first step.” The White House "look[s] forward to a vote in the full House" on the legislation, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said by email.

The bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years for educational and vocational programs for prisoners with the goal of equipping inmates for life after incarceration and reducing repeat offenses.

In a major win for progressives, the bill also includes a technical tweak to current law that would increase “good time” credit for prisoners from 47 days to 54 days per year. The change, which would be applied retroactively, would lead to the immediate release of 4,000 prisoners, according to the bill’s supporters.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

House Judiciary Committee approves FIRST STEP Act by a vote of 25-5 after lots of discussion of amendments

As reported in this article from The Hill, the House Judicial Committee "on Wednesday approved a new prison reform bill being pushed by the White House."  Here are some details:

The bill, called the First Step Act, seeks to offer more funding for prison programs in an attempt to reduce an inmate’s likelihood to re-offend after they’ve been released. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill, by a 25-5 vote, that Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) spent the last week negotiating after committee Democrats pushed back against a number of conservative provisions.

In the legislation now advancing to the House, lawmakers removed language that would have allowed certain law enforcement officials and correctional officers to carry a concealed firearm in all 50 states and created more opportunities for prisoners to earn time credits by completing prison programs. They can then use those credits to serve the remaining days of their sentence in a halfway house or home confinement.

The bill, which authorizes $50 million a year for five years for the Bureau of Prisons to spend on programs like job training and education that reduce recidivism, clarifies current law to allow prisoners up to 54 days of credit for good behavior annually. The law was previously interpreted as only allowing prisoners to earn 47 days a year.

The previous bill, known as the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, and the current compromise, however, have divided Democrats and liberal groups. While #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group led by Van Jones, the CNN host and former adviser to President Obama, is now backing the new bill, the measure is still opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 73 other groups.

Democrats and progressive groups argue the criminal justice reform bill should include provisions that reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee’s ranking member, said the bill is well-intentioned but the committee should be working on legislation that includes sentencing reform. He offered a motion to postpone the markup by one month to give committee members time to negotiate and markup sentencing reform legislation.... Nadler’s motion was [after discussion] voted down by the committee.

Progressives were able to win language prohibiting female prisoners from being shackled during pregnancy, childbirth and up to 12 weeks after a baby is born. But the committee voted down an amendment Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) offered to create a pilot program in federal prisons to allow female inmates who give birth while behind bars to live with their child in a prison housing unit until the child is two-and-a-half years old.

The committee, however, approved an amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to expand a pilot youth mentorship program and a pilot program that gives prisoners the skills to train rescue and abandoned dogs. The bill would take the programs from two years in 10 facilities to five years in at least 20 facilities.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) also had an amendment approved that would prevent faith-based organizations that want to offer prison programming from being discriminated against.

A bipartisan amendment from Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Collins, Jackson Lee, Jeffries and Val Demings (D-Fla.) was also approved to clarify that the legislative fix, which makes prisoners eligible for 54 days of good time instead of 47, applies to prisoners already serving sentences....

Collins said he’s confident there’s enough Democratic support to get the bill through the House and the Senate. “They have their own process to go through. There may be some issues that we can then work on later, but I do feel this is one of the pieces of legislation that will be signed into law this year,” he said.

The House Judiciary Committee has this press release about the vote and key provisions of the bill under the heading, "House Judiciary Committee Approves Bill to Reform the Federal Prison System."  Though not mentioned in these reports, I believe all the Republican votes coming from the committee were in favor of this FIRST STEP bill except for Rep. Steve King from Iowa, and also that a majority of the Democrats in the committee also voted for the bill (though Ranking Member Jerry Nadler and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee were among the notable "No"s).

All of this suggests to me a reason to be optimistic that there might really be some notable federal criminal justice reform getting done in 2018.  It is less than I would like to see, but I still think it would be MUCH better than nothing. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

On eve of House Committee consideration, distinct advice from criminal justice reform groups on latest federal prison reform proposal

As noted in this prior recent post, a new and improved version of a federal prison reform bill, the "Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act" or the "FIRST STEP Act, " is now slated for House Judiciary Committee markup the morning of Wednesday, May 9th.  The full text of this FIRST STEP bill is available at this link, and I am starting to wonder if this may be a significant criminal justice reform bill that ends up getting in committee even more votes from Republicans than from Democrats.  (For those keeping score, and as this official list details, there are 40 members of the House Judiciary Committee of which 23 are Republicans and 17 are Democrats.)

I do not know for sure if all 23 Republican members of the HJC will be voting for the FIRST STEP bill, but I surmise that some Democrats will be voting against it because the bill is too limited and lacks any sentencing reform elements.  Indeed, on Tuesday, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights along with 74 reform-oriented organizations sent this lengthy letter to House Judiciary Committee members titled "Vote 'No' on The FIRST STEP Act."  Here is how the letter gets started: 

On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the 74 undersigned organizations, we urge you to vote “No” on the FIRST STEP Act that will be considered during the mark up.  Any effort to pass prison reform (or “back-end” reform) legislation without including sentencing reform (or “front-end” reform) will not meaningfully improve the federal system.  Across the country, states that have enacted legislation containing both front and back end reforms have reduced rates of incarceration and crime.  Any legislation that addresses only back end reforms is doomed to fail in achieving these goals.  Without changes to sentencing laws that eliminate mandatory minimums, restore judicial discretion, reduce the national prison population, and mitigate disparate impacts on communities of color, the FIRST STEP Act alone will have little impact.

Critically, though, not all leading criminal justice reform groups are urging a no vote on the FIRST STEP Act.  The President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums sent a short memo to the sponsors of the FIRST STEP Act, Representatives Doug Collins and Hakeem Jeffries, explaining why FAMM believe the bill "deserves the Judiciary Committee’s support."  That memo, which can be downloaded below, echoes many concerns of other advocacy groups, but explains why it is ultimately backing this bill in these terms: "FAMM is in contact with nearly 40,000 federal prisoners every week.  Far too many of them are serving excessive sentences.  This bill might be the only opportunity we have in the next few years to get them some overdue relief and justice."    Download FAMM Memo on First Step

Regular readers likely realize I am in the FAMM camp here, wishing that a more comprehensive bill was being considered, but resigned to the political reality that a prison reform bill looks like the only form of statutory criminal justice reform that has a serious chance of being enacted this year.  In this arena, something is always better than nothing, and Congress has delivered nothing on sentencing or prison reform for now nearly eight years despite so much talk from so many folks about a strong bipartisan interest in reform.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 9, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 07, 2018

New and improved version of federal prison reform bill to be considered by House Judiciary Committee

First-step-concept-cork-board-77226634In this post last night, I expressed my deep pessimism concerning Congress managing to pass any notable criminal justice reform.  So it is fitting kismet that this afternoon came the exciting news of a new and improved version of a prison reform bill known as the "Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act" or the "FIRST STEP Act." The full text of this bill is available at this link, and this House Judiciary Committee page indicates that this bill will be marked up this Wednesday.

This new Politico article, headlined "Kushner-backed prison reform bill finds new life," provides an account of the background politics and the critical new provisions of the new proposed legislation. Here are excerpts:

A group of bipartisan House lawmakers unveiled a new criminal justice bill Monday, with hopes it can overcome obstacles that derailed an earlier version of the legislation just two weeks ago. The House Judiciary Committee will vote on the prison reform bill Wednesday after its lead authors, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), spent the congressional recess working with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and others to tweak the proposal.

The bill would authorize funding for training programs to help rehabilitate prisoners. If approved by the Judiciary Committee, the bill could be on the House floor before the Memorial Day recess, according to several sources. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a companion proposal Monday afternoon.

But while Jeffries and Collins have been working to build a bipartisan coalition of support, key lawmakers including Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), top Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, and Senate Judiciary Charmain Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) remain potential obstacles.

The House Judiciary Committee scrapped plans two weeks ago to mark up an earlier version of the bill after support waned — due in part, according to House sources, from Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) privately urging members to oppose the plan because it didn't include sentencing reforms. “What we’re disagreeing on right now is how far can we go right now,” Collins said in an interview Monday. “Do you want to actually make law or do you want to make press releases?”...

Collins and Jeffries said they hope the plan’s broad support — from liberal criminal justice group #cut50 to the Koch brothers to Kushner — is enough to ensure passage in the House. Kushner is meeting with the conservative House Freedom Caucus Monday evening to rally support for the bill.

But Nadler — who still has “a lot of concerns” a spokesman said Monday — isn’t alone in his opposition to the bill. Detractors argue the proposal doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t also tackle sentencing reform, an effort Grassley and Durbin have spent months negotiating. Grassley along with several key Senate Democrats and influential civil rights groups like the ACLU and NAACP want a comprehensive criminal justice overhaul that includes both sentencing and prison reforms....

Jeffries and Collins told POLITICO they hope the changes made over the last two weeks are enough to get reluctant House lawmakers on board. Jeffries is also hopeful that Sessions will refrain from trying to sink the effort as he has in the past. “At the moment, it appears that the Department of Justice is in a position of neutrality as it relates to the bill,” Jeffries said. “To the extent that changes, that could be a complicating factor once the bill gets on the House floor.”

The bill — which they are now calling the “First Step Act,” in part to signify it’s the initial step in a longer effort to reform the justice system, including sentencing laws — has several major changes from previous versions.

The bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years to provide education and vocational training programs to prisoners; the latest version would also allow nonviolent drug offenders to participate in the programs. Jeffries and Collins also agreed to language that would allow more prisoners to take advantage of credits that would allow inmates to serve part of their sentence in home confinement or at a halfway house.

The proposal also includes several wins that liberal groups had pushed for, including language codifying prohibitions on shackling pregnant female inmates, both during their pregnancy and for 12 weeks postpartum.

And in what progressive backers are touting as another major win, the bill includes a technical fix that would allow inmates to earn up to 54 days of “good time” credit a year, up from 47 days annually under current interpretation of the law.

“We also had concerns around whether or not this was a meaningful reform. Those have been answered by including the good time credit fix,” #cut50 co-founder Jessica Jackson Sloan said, noting roughly 4,000 prisoners would immediately be eligible for release. “We’re fully on board with this bill. We’ll continue to fight for sentencing reform,” she added.

To turn up pressure on House Judiciary Democrats, the Koch brother’s Freedom Partners launched a wave of digital ads Monday encouraging lawmakers to support the bill. The Facebook and Twitter ads will run in six Judiciary Democrats’ districts, including Jeffries, Nadler and Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). The White House is also expected to increase its outreach on the Hill this week, likely through Kushner, according to sources.

For the plans’ supporters, they say now is the best time to act with the goal of getting sentencing reform down the road. “There were some who took the position that we should wait on criminal justice reform until [Hillary] Clinton is president and Democrats were in control of the Senate. How did that work out?” Jeffries said.

I will not count any congressional chickens until they have hatched in the form of a Presidential signature on enacted legislation. But, after feeling distinctly pessimistic last night, now I am peculiarly optimistic that something pretty significant could get done in the coming months.

May 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

More criticism of prison-reform only efforts, while failing to explain a path forward for broader federal sentencing reforms

Todd Cox, policy director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has this notable new commentary in The Hill headlined "Sentencing reform is moving in the wrong direction." Here are excerpts with a bit of additional commentary to follow:

In 2015, Senator Chuck Grassley introduced a long awaited bi-partisan criminal justice reform bill designed to address inequities in federal sentencing and promote rehabilitation and re-entry for persons who are incarcerated.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) was a compromise that fell far short of the comprehensive criminal justice reforms that are needed to truly transform the nation’s criminal justice system; and yet, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and many of our civil rights coalition partners, generally supported this compromise. Limited sentencing reforms were easier to accept in 2015, under a Department of Justice itself dedicated to policing reform and to reforming its own charging policies with the goal of reducing the impact of overly harsh sentences.

However, the Department of Justice is now led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Session’s DOJ has not only abandoned policing reform but is ramping up the now discredited “war on drugs,” re-opening the flood gates to our nation’s federal prisons.  Under these circumstances, it would be a critical mistake to pursue strategies that do not include reforming the front-end of the system or sentencing.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have decided to do just that: pursue a criminal justice reform strategy that does not include sentencing reform but focuses instead on so-called prison reform, the back-end of the system.  These proposals will not meaningfully reform the federal criminal justice system.  Indeed, states have pursued the opposite strategy, adopting both front-end and back-end reforms that have reduced both incarceration rates and crime.

Proposals without, at least, front and back-end reform will not achieve these results.  Without sentencing reform that eliminates mandatory minimums, reduces the prison population, and addresses the disparate impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color, these proposals will have little impact....

House proposals would exclude too many people currently in prison from early release even though the vast majority of these individuals would still be coming home one day. These exclusions would likely have a disparate impact on racial minorities because the proposals exclude individuals convicted of certain immigration and drug-related offenses. These types of offenses account for 53.3 percent of the total federal prison population and are made up of mostly minorities, so the bill is likely to neglect a significant portion of the prison population and exacerbate racial disparities....

We need comprehensive, meaningful criminal justice reform to create a fair equitable justice system.  We cannot accept proposals that not only take us backwards, but may actually harm the communities we serve.

I share the author's interest in "comprehensive, meaningful criminal justice reform," especially any form of federal legislation that "eliminates mandatory minimums, reduces the prison population, and addresses the disparate impact of our criminal justice system on communities of color."  But, as the commentary highlights, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act itself falls short of comprehensive reform (and it includes the prison reform features that this commentary now derides as potentially harmful).  Moreover, despite broad bipartisan support, the SRCA is still yet to get a floor vote in either chamber of Congress after three years of considerable effort.  Because sentencing reform in the form of the SRCA (or anything better) seems unlikely to move until there is a new President and/or Attorney General, criticizing efforts to move forward with just prison reform strikes me as tantamount to resigning oneself to the federal sentencing and corrections status quo until at least 2021.

I continue to hope I am wrong when fearing that there is no path forward for significant federal statutory sentencing reform until at least 2021 (if not later).  But it is discouraging to read commentaries that call for big reforms and then fail to explain how politically such reforms get done anytime soon.  Meanwhile, even a faulty version of prison reform could and should provide at least some extra bit of help and hope to tens of thousands federal prisoners (and their families and friends awaiting their release).  And focused advocacy efforts might help ensure passage of an improved version of prison reform to enhance the help and hope prisoners would get from even an imperfect and incomplete form of reform.  But as another month passes without any viable bill even getting through a committee, it seems help and hope for federal prisons is still wishful thinking.

I have become deeply pessimistic about federal statutory sentencing reform in recent years, and Congress finds new ways each session to make my pessimism look like a perverse form of wisdom.  So I suppose I will continue to predict that nothing is going to get done here anytime soon.

A few of many prior related posts:

May 6, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 27, 2018

Senator Chuck Grassley makes full-throated case for Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Sen_Chuck_Grassley_KCRGSenate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley is continuing to pitch his desired approach to statutory criminal justice reform in the form of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that passed out of his committee earlier this year. Today his pitching efforts include this lengthy new Fox News commentary under the headline "Sentencing reform bill will fight crime." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

In the 1980s, with our nation facing an influx of drug crimes, Congress passed into law stiff penalties targeting all levels of offenders. The goal was to deter crime through harsh sentences. While well-intentioned, these policies came with a cost. Over time, prisons began to fill up with offenders of all stripes. Lower-level, nonviolent drug offenders were locked up alongside career criminal masterminds. Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences offered little flexibility for judges to take individual circumstances into account and left scant prospects for rehabilitation.

Taxpayers shell out more than $7 billion annually – roughly 25 percent of the entire Justice Department budget – just to house the ballooning federal prison population, almost half of which is serving time for drug crimes.

These policies have been in place for more than three decades now, and yet we are facing a new wave of drug crimes – this time with crowded prisons syphoning scarce resources away from other law enforcement priorities. It’s clear that the policies of the 1980s need a fresh look. We need a more strategic approach to drug sentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of non-violent, lower level offenders. That is why I worked with several of my colleagues in the Senate to craft the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

This legislation is the product of years of thoughtful bipartisan deliberations and has earned the support of lawmakers, advocates and experts from across the political spectrum. The bill is tough on crime and focuses law enforcement efforts on the worst criminals. But it also promotes fairness in sentencing, especially for lower-level, nonviolent offenders. Similar reforms at the state level have reduced crime, closed prisons and cut taxpayer costs.

This bill strengthens important crime-fighting tools and aids in the fight against the opioid epidemic. It preserves cooperation incentives to help law enforcement take down serious criminals, and stiffens penalties for violent felons. The legislation adds new mandatory sentences for federal domestic violence crimes and weapons trafficking to terrorists. And it supports the fight against the opioid epidemic through enhanced penalties for traffickers of the deadly drug fentanyl.... Mandatory minimum penalties would be preserved to ensure that criminals face clear consequences for their actions. But penalties would be lowered under the bill for lower-level, nonviolent offenders to give judges additional discretion at sentencing.

Judges would still be free to impose stiff criminal penalties, but they could also take into account individual circumstances to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. This approach would prevent prisons from being overcrowded with lower-level, nonviolent criminals serving unnecessarily long sentences. In the interest of fairness, the bill would make these reforms available to some inmates who have already been sentenced under harsh mandatory minimum laws. Under the bill, an inmate with a minimal criminal history could request that a judge review his or her case to determine if the sentence should be reduced. Notably, violent and career criminals would not qualify for this relief....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This frees up resources to pay for the prison reform programs that the Trump administration supports. These programs are designed to reduce recidivism and help prisoners return to the workforce. Savings from our bill could also be used to support law enforcement efforts to fight the opioid epidemic and go after major drug importers and distributers. Without sentencing reform, Congress would have to appropriate additional funds for these programs, potentially adding to our growing budget deficit, projected to be more than $1 trillion by 2020.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has united policymakers across the political spectrum. It is co-sponsored by more than a quarter of the Senate, evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats. The bill is also backed by a diverse array of groups including FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration – a group of more than 200 respected law enforcement officials from around the country. No other proposal enjoys the same level of bipartisan support.

The notion that Congress can enact meaningful criminal justice reform by focusing solely on the back-end of the process without addressing the underlying disparities in prison sentencing is naïve and unproductive. There will never be enough funding for back-end prison reform programs as long as there is a steady stream of new inmates with lengthy sentences disproportionate to their crimes. Instead of keeping lower-level, nonviolent inmates in prisons longer for no good reason, we must work to ensure that our limited resources are used to go after our worst criminals and to prevent inmates from committing new crimes when they leave prison....

The bill proves that Congress can be tough on crime while enacting reasonable and responsible public policy. And, importantly, in an increasingly polarized political environment, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is the only proposal that has the votes necessary to become law. I look forward to continuing to work with the Trump administration and my colleagues in the Senate and House on the important issue of criminal justice reform.

I am so very pleased to see Senator Grassley continuing to work hard to secure passage of the SRCA. As I have reported in the past, various Senators have indicated that that are perhaps as many as 70 to 80 votes in support of this bill in the Senate. If Senator Grassley can convince Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell to allow a floor vote on the SRCA, it would seem nearly certain to pass. Perhaps we should try to start a campaign like #LetThemVoteonSRCA.

A few of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just noticed that Fox News also has this competing commentary from Ron Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI, headlined "Cutting federal prison terms would endanger communities and reward criminals." Here is an excerpt:

The Grassley legislation would make our communities less safe by returning still more convicted criminals from federal prisons to the streets sooner. In addition, the Grassley bill would tie up hundreds of federal prosecutors, who would be forced to deal with sentencing reduction motions filed by prisoners seeking early release. This means the prosecutors would have less time to handle new cases involving dangerous criminals.

The Grassley bill would reduce federal prison sentences not only for “non-violent, low-level drug offenders” but serious drug traffickers, members of violent drug cartels and people convicted of firearms crimes.

In addition, Grassley’s bill ignores the reality that strong federal sentencing guidelines have another valuable byproduct – squeezing cooperation from reticent criminals so they will testify against other criminals, while incentivizing them to plead guilty to lesser offenses to get shorter prison terms....

While much has been made of the harshness of federal minimum mandatory sentences and their impact on reform and on families, Bureau of Prisons records show that half of federal prisoners are serving sentences of 10 years or less. Only about 16 percent are serving sentences of 20 years or more....

Grassley’s legislation is both poorly timed and ill-advised. It’s little more than a rehashed “jailbreak” bill that should be permanently scrapped, taking with it the mistaken notion that federal prisons remain filled with “low level, non-violent” drug offenders. The good senator from Iowa would do better for all Americans by drafting legislation that empowers validated methodologies shown to steer the willing away from prison while building the opportunity, skill sets and individual tools needed to make released convicts more “crime resistant.”

April 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Federal criminal justice reform bogs down again in fight over whether prison reform or broader sentencing reform moves forward

Politico has this lengthy and discouraging article about the state of federal criminal justice reform under the headline "Kushner-backed prison reform bill stumbles in House."  Here are excerpts:

The House Judiciary Committee scrapped plans to vote on a prison reform proposal Wednesday, potentially dooming one of the few remaining prospects for significant bipartisan compromise this Congress.

The last-minute postponement of the measure came as President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner visited Capitol Hill to rally support for it.  But the delay also followed what multiple House sources described as a behind-the-scenes opposition campaign from two Senate heavyweights, one from each party.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have told House Judiciary panel members to oppose a narrower prison reform bill without the addition of a sentencing overhaul they spent months negotiating, House sources said.

The Trump administration and GOP leaders want to see a prison-only bill move, not the broader criminal justice bill, but that’s not stopping Grassley and Durbin from what one Republican portrayed as meddling in the House debate.  “Frankly, I respect the two senators, but they have enough problems in the Senate,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the House GOP’s lead author of the prison reform legislation, in a Wednesday interview. “I wish they would actually focus on passing bills over there. That would be nice.”

Durbin denied that he was telling the House to slow down on the prison-only approach: “We’re just saying that over here, the two need to be together.” But Durbin confirmed Wednesday that he has talked to the House Judiciary panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, about the importance of keeping the two bills together while Grassley has reached out to Republicans to pitch a comprehensive approach....

The Senate’s lobbying threatens to kill momentum for the Kushner-backed House bill, which would provide training programs to prisoners in hopes of discouraging repeat offenses.  The omission of sentencing changes is opposed not only by Grassley and Durbin but by dozens of powerful progressive groups including the ACLU and the NAACP. Those groups say the bill doesn’t go far enough and should also include language that would reduce sentences for some prisoners.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) blamed Wednesday’s delayed vote on “time constraints” and said the postponement will give negotiators more time to work out “minor issues.” The panel is now scheduled to consider the bill during the week of May 7.

But the impasse doesn’t show any signs of being resolved soon. In his statement at the beginning of the hearing Wednesday, Nadler said negotiators should consider including sentencing reform in their discussions.  “In my view, considering prison reform without consideration of sentencing reform has the process backward, and avoids the difficult but necessary legislating on that critical issue,” Nadler said.

Nadler later told POLITICO he would be "very reluctant” to support any bill that didn’t include sentencing reform but wouldn’t say whether his opposition, as the top Democrat on the panel, was enough to sink the proposal: “Never say never, but I’d be very reluctant."

But supporters of the narrower prison reform push say a comprehensive strategy is a futile effort and would nix the chances of any bipartisan bill getting to the president’s desk this year.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch critic of sentencing reform, opposed a similar proposal before Trump tapped him to lead DOJ and has publicly clashed with Grassley over the issue this year.

However, there’s lingering distrust among House Democrats that Sessions is operating in good faith. Democrats successfully nixed multiple “poison pill“ amendments they said were floated by DOJ during talks on the bill but said privately they’re concerned that Sessions does’'t actually want to see any criminal justice legislation come to fruition.

Grassley also acknowledged in an interview with POLITICO this week that he has yet to persuade Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the comprehensive criminal justice bill to the floor.  “It’s my job to show McConnell that this bill has got plenty of support at the grass roots, that it’s got good bipartisan support,” Grassley said. “It’s something that a president needs a bipartisan bill to sign and there’s all kinds of reasons why this bipartisan bill should be brought up, whether the House passes a bill or not.”...

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who supported Grassley’s efforts on a broader criminal justice package during the Obama administration but has narrowed his sights given the Trump administration’s opposition, delivered a floor speech Wednesday urging the two camps to come together on a prison-only approach. “I know other people have other ideas, perhaps about sentencing reform and the like,” Cornyn said, “but in this political environment, I’m for doing what we can do rather than spinning our wheels being frustrated about what we can’t do because there’s simply not the political support in the House and the Senate and at the White House to get it done.”

I am glad that Senators Grassley and Durbin remain deeply committed to getting a bigger criminal justice reform bill passed, but I continue to fear that Senate Majority Leader McConnell will continue to be unwilling to allow a floor vote on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  Senator McConnell has shown in other settings his ability to be stubborn, and his enduring resistance to the SRCA leads me to be pessimistic about any sentencing reforms getting through Congress this year.

I surmise Senators Grassley and Durbin, and perhaps many reform advocates who have come out against a prison-reform-only bill, believe that passage of a broad bill through the House might make it more likely that Senator McConnell will allow a floor vote.  Perhaps so, and I hope they can get it done.  But I am not optimistic, and I continue to think that getting prison reform done ASAP can be a needed and useful first step toward an array of badly-needed statutory reform of our federal criminal justice system.

A few of many prior related posts:

April 26, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Law enforcement reform group urges Congress to tackle sentencing reform along with prison reforms

As reported in this press release, "over 60 police chiefs and prosecutors — all members of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration — sent a letter to the Senate and House leadership calling on Congress to pass sentencing reform, as a part of the White House’s commitment to reduce recidivism." Here is more from the release:

The letter comes in advance of an expected House Judiciary Committee vote this week on a prison reform bill, which is opposed by both progressive groups and law enforcement alike because it does not address sentencing.  Just last week, Law Enforcement Leaders encouraged members of Congress to instead take action on Senate legislation that includes both sentencing and prison reform, in a series of meetings that included Jared Kushner, Law Enforcement Leaders member Timothy Heaphy, and other bi-partisan advocates.

“Improving prison conditions and reentry services, on their own, will not adequately solve our high rates of incarceration and recidivism,” the letter reads.  “Legislation like the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (H.R.3356) and the CORRECTIONS Act (S. 1994) are useful efforts to improve the lives of those in prison. But such efforts should be coupled with efforts to reduce unnecessary incarceration, as it is in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act... As law enforcement leaders, we want to make clear where we stand: Not only is passing federal mandatory minimum and reentry reform necessary to reduce incarceration, it is also necessary to help police and prosecutors continue to keep crime at its historic lows across the country. We believe the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will accomplish this goal and respectfully urge Congress to swiftly pass it.”

The full text of the letter can be found at this link, and here are a few passages:

Legislation like the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (H.R.3356) and the CORRECTIONS Act (S. 1994) are useful efforts to improve the lives of those in prison. But such efforts should be coupled with efforts to reduce unnecessary incarceration, as it is in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act....

Lawmakers and Presidents of both parties have taken great strides to reform prison systems and develop more effective reentry programs. We are grateful to the White House for allocating resources towards reducing recidivism, through the creation of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry, and for its support of similar legislative efforts. This concerted effort acknowledges the importance of setting an example of criminal justice reform on the federal level, and the impact federal policies have on state and local criminal justice practice.

However, improving prison conditions and reentry services, on their own, will not adequately solve our high rates of incarceration and recidivism.  It will not stop the overuse of incarceration for minor drug-related and low-level, non-violent offenses. To have meaningful reform, we must also address our sentencing laws.  As those fighting crime on the frontlines, we know from firsthand experience that it is ineffective to exhaust resources on reducing the rate of recidivism if there is no accompanying effort to reduce the rate at which people unnecessarily enter prison in the first place.  For this reason, 67 of our members wrote in support of a previous version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in early 2016.

We ask the Senate, House, and White House to work together to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in addition to any reentry legislation.  The Act would shorten unnecessarily long sentences for lower-level offenders, a solution that has been shown in other parts of the country to successfully reduce crime and incarceration together.

April 23, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Lots of notable reporting and commentary as federal prison reform tries to move forward

As reported here last week, there was talk of a federal prison reform bill moving forward in the House of Representatives this week.  This article from The Hill, headlined "Prison reforms groups battle over strategy," highlights that folks on the left may be gumming up the works:

Progressive groups fighting for criminal justice reform are divided over legislation that would allow prisoners to finish their sentences in a halfway house, home confinement or under community supervision if they complete education, job training, drug treatment and other programs while behind bars.  The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP are among the groups saying that legislation that fails to reduce mandatory minimum sentences isn’t worth their support....

But #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group led by Van Jones, the CNN host and former adviser to President Obama, sees the bill sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) that’s supported by the White House as an opportunity for positive change, even if it’s incremental. “It’s a bill that’s moving that we decided as a group we’ll hop in and try to make stronger because I think this is going to move with or without us,” said Jessica Sloan Jackson, the national director and co-founder of #cut50.

Instead of shooting it down, the group said it’s lobbying to make the Prison Reform and Redemption Act stronger.  Sloan Jackson acknowledged #cut50 would rather have the Collins–Jeffries bill include language that reduces mandatory minimum sentences, but recognized the criminal justice reform movement has shifted under Trump. She said #cut50 would like to at least win some changes to help people in prison.  “At this point in the process, I think it’s stupid not to even engage in conversations with folks on the right and in the White House just because you aren’t getting everything you want,” she said.

To supporters of broader reforms, however, the bill is a significant step down from legislation that nearly won approval in the last Congress.  That bill, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), has been reintroduced and would eliminate certain mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It would also give judges more discretion in sentencing.

The Collins–Jeffries bill authorizes $50 million to be appropriated each year from 2018 to 2022 for the Bureau of Prisons to offer education, work training and other programming, but opponents say that’s not enough.  It also lists 48 different categories of crimes that make prisoners ineligible to earn time in pre-release custody for taking these programs, a provision groups backing broader reforms say excludes too many prisoners who are at a high risk of reoffending and need prison programming the most.  “By cutting out or limiting so many people to get incentives to programming you are missing the point,” said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

In a letter to members of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, dozens of groups opposed to the bill said it would do little good if it does not reduce mandatory minimum sentences.  “Only front-end reforms have the power to significantly stem the tide of incarceration, reduce the exorbitant cost of the prison system, and give redress to those inside who are serving sentences that are disproportionate to the severity of the offense,” the groups wrote.

The Collins–Jeffries bill has won support from groups on the right that have backed minimum sentencing reforms. “We’re big advocates for commonsense sentencing reform as well and we hope that happens, but we want to get the ball rolling and we think prison reform is a great place to start,” said Mark Holden, Koch Industries’s general counsel and senior vice president....

Advocates say Jeffries and Collins have been negotiating possible changes to their bill, and a markup that had been expected this week was pushed back to provide time for their work.  In a joint statement to The Hill, Jeffries and Collins said their bill will reunite families and help thousands of Americans get back on their feet.

Similar report on these debates and developments are in this Politico article, headlined "Kushner’s prison-reform push hits bipartisan resistance: The son-in-law of President Donald Trump is pressing for a criminal justice bill that’s narrower than a bipartisan one that has stalled in Congress."  And Van Jones has this new CNN commentary that highlights his work and his support for a prison-reform-only bill under the headlined "Prison reform is possible even in the Trump era."

As long-time readers likely know, I am a strong believer that the best should not be the enemy of the good.  In this setting, I am especially eager to urge federal criminal justice reform advocates to secure ASAP any and whatever improvements they can.  I still can recall, though it is now nearly five years ago, when commentators were asserting that "momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable."  But from 2013 through 2016, despite a President, Attorneys General and many members of both parties advocating all sorts of federal sentencing reforms, not a single statutory change could make it through Congress to the desk of the President.   Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of defendants have been (often over) sentenced to federal prison since 2013.  And while there, as Craig DeRoche highlights in a letter in the New York Times, these prisoners are stuck within a prison system that "offers drastically less opportunity for prisoners to transition to community corrections before the end of their sentence compared with almost all states."

Advocates are right to complain that a compromise bill with only prison reform is insufficient, but the fact that broader bills have been pushed and stalled for half-a-decade leads me to be more than ready to settle for half a loaf.  I have grow so tired of the reform talk that produces no result, though I am sure I am not as exhausted and frustrated as hundreds of thousands of federal prisoners, defendants and their families who have been clinging on to still empty promises of reform potential for year after year after year after year.  Van Jones has a couple of lines in his commentary that capture well my feelings here, as well as my desire to preserve some hope for this process:

My big heartache -- on this topic and so many others -- is how much common ground there is when you get people talking -- and yet how little we actually do about it.  Taking a small but meaningful step together now could allow us to take more steps together later.

April 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Federal prison reform bill reportedly moving forward in House of Representatives

This article in the Hill, headlined "Prison reform bill set for House markup next week," reports that there is some movement in Congress on the federal criminal justice reform bill that would seem to have a reasonable chance of passage this year.  Here are the details:

The House Judiciary Committee is expected next week to mark up a Republican proposal that aims to reduce prison recidivism rates, according to a senior Republican staffer who has been briefed on the plans.

Rep. Doug Collins’s (R-Ga.) Prison Reform and Redemption Act would allow prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in a halfway house or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment.

The White House announced in February it was throwing its support behind prison reform measures such as Collins's bill instead of measures to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences. The announcement marked a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session....

The senior Republican staffer said they feel confident Collins's bill will pass through the House Judiciary Committee. A committee spokesperson said only that the committee is working toward a markup as soon as possible.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have a bill in the Senate that mirrors Collins's proposal.

The full text of the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA) is available at this link, and its text is so dense I find it difficult to effectively summarize its provisions or assess its impact.  Helpfully, FAMM has this detailed summary of the PRRA that runs a full eight pages.  I am hopeful that this news that the PRRA is moving forward in the legislative process could lead more folks to focus more attention on what this bill would and would not do and how many offenders it could impact.

April 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Interesting new US Sentencing Commission analysis of possible impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this recent letter from the USSC's Director of its Office of Research and Data to an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. Here is how the letter gets started:

The Congressional Budget Office has requested the U.S. Sentencing Commission to assist it in its assessment of the budgetary impact of S. 1917, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, were it to be enacted.  Enclosed with this letter is the Commission’s estimate of the impact of several sections of this bill on the sentences that would be imposed on federal offenders as well as the impact on the size of the federal prison population.

As you can see on the enclosed, the Commission has estimated the number of offenders who would be affected by each section of the bill for which an estimate was possible. Some of those sections have both prospective and retroactive impacts.  For the provisions that have both, the Commission has provided separate estimates of the number of offenders affected. The data used for this analysis was Commission data, however the retroactive analyses were based, in part, on information from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as to offenders who were incarcerated as of October 28, 2017.

The detailed "Sentence and Prison Impact Estimate Summary" serves to confirm my long-standing belief that the corrections provisions of SRCA could and would impact many tens of thousands more prisoners than the sentencing reform provisions.  In rough particulars, the USSC analysis suggests about 7,000 current prisoners could benefit from the retroactive sentencing provisions of Title I of the SRCA, whereas over 75,000 current federal prisoners could be eligible for the corrections credits of Title II of the SRCA.  (Prospectively, according to the USSC analysis, a few thousand new offenders would benefit from the sentencing provisions of Title I of the SRCA.  And, though not discussed by the USSC, it is also likely tens of thousands of new offenders would also be able to benefit from the corrections credits of Title II of the SRCA.)

As previously reported, though the SRCA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 16-5 vote last month, the White House has formally expressed support only for the prison reform components of the bill.  Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has indicated he wants to keep pushing the SRCA in its current form, but other important GOP leaders in the Senate and elsewhere seem prepared and eager only to move forward with prison reform at this time.  In light of these new USSC data, I sincerely hope Senator Grassley and lots of criminal justice reform advocates will appreciate that a huge number of current and future federal prisoners could and would benefit from enacting just the corrections piece of the SRCA.  Given widespread support for reform provisions that could have widespread impact, I hope we see some movement on the corrections front soon.  But, sadly, given an array of problematic personalities and politics, I am not optimistic.

A few prior related posts:

March 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Senator Grassley talking up Senate vote on his SRCA bill along with any prison reform bill lacking sentencing reforms

As reported in this post, the White House yesterday signaled its disaffinity for key parts of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act when an official was quoted as saying the "sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done."   But Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley is seemingly not prepared to give up on his bill, as detailed in this new press article headlined "Grassley: I'll fight for sentencing reforms."  Here are the key details:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pledged Wednesday to fight for a criminal justice proposal that includes reducing certain mandatory prison sentences, and he raised the prospect of blocking a package of related reforms the White House and congressional Republicans are said to be interested in if he can't get an agreement....

Late Tuesday, the White House expressed interest in proposals to reduce recidivism among offenders, but not changes to sentences. A White House official who wasn't identified said the sentencing reform piece "does not have a pathway forward to getting done," according to several news reports. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, also is said to be an obstacle to getting the legislation to the floor.

On a conference call with Iowa reporters Wednesday, Grassley disputed the idea his bill can't pass and said with Democrats and Republicans, there are at least 60 votes for his proposal. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago on a 16-5 bi-partisan vote.

Grassley said people pushing for a narrower approach just want to get a bill passed. "Well, if they take up prison reform, they’re going to have to have 60 votes to get prison reform up.  And I’ll bet we’ve got, if all the Democrats go along with me, we can stop that from coming up until we get a deal to get a vote on my sentencing reform," Grassley said.

Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been a key figure in getting the Trump administration's court picks through the confirmation process, said he planned to talk to Durbin first before deciding whether to take that route....

On the conference call Wednesday, Grassley said the chances for his proposal, at the moment, aren't very good.  But he said he isn't going to give up.  "This would be a bipartisan policy win for the administration. And it seems like a no-brainer to me."  He said he hasn't spoken to President Trump about the proposal yet.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Trump White House expresses opposition to sentencing reform part of SRCA of 2017

Given that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 could not even get very far in Congress despite the support of then of the President and Attorney General, I have never been all that optimistic about the prospects for the 2017 version of this bill.  Attorney General Sessions has been against it from the get-go, and this new report from the The Hill indicates that the White House has now put its opposition forward.  Here are the details:

The White House on Tuesday said it sees no path forward for legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences, instead throwing its support behind measures aimed at reducing recidivism rates. "The conclusion we reached was that, at this time, it's appropriate for us to go forward with prison reform," a senior administration official said.

The White House's position represents a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor by a 16-5 vote earlier this month over the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a few GOP members on the committee....

A senior White House official said the administration respects Grassley’s efforts, but sees no path forward for sentencing reform. "The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done," the official said. "And so what we see now is an environment where the prison reform does have enough support to get done. And we think that by maybe doing this in smaller bits and pushing the prison reform now, we think this has a better chance of getting done."

A second official said the White House is instead focused on prison reform legislation like Rep. Doug Collins's (R-Ga.) bipartisan Prison Reform and Redemption Act. That bill, co-sponsored by nine Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates.

Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment. "I think that that is a good basis that we can look at and start with," the second senior White House official said of Collins's bill. “I do think that as the conversation continues over the coming weeks, there might be additions, changes, amendments, and we want to go through the regular order committee processes. But I do think that that's a big piece of legislation to look at as a starting point."

A source familiar with the talks with the White House told The Hill in January that Collins’s bill is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said the chairman is focused on passing sound policy, not the path of least resistance. "Bipartisan support continues to grow in the Senate for comprehensive criminal justice reform, which includes providing additional discretion for judges at sentencing for lower level, non-violent drug crimes," he said. "Chairman Grassley’s broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is cosponsored by nearly a quarter of the Senate. Our office continues to have productive conversations with the White House on this issue.”

A senior White House official said President Trump is planning to sign an executive order Wednesday to revamp the Federal Reentry Council and move it from the Department of Justice to the White House. Under the Obama administration, the interagency council worked to reduce recidivism and improve employment, education, housing, health and child welfare outcomes, according to the Department of Justice website.

The White House said Tuesday it sent a list of legislative principles for reform efforts to Congress. In addition to effectively using government resources to reduce crime and incentivize re-entry programs, the White House wants Congress to expand access to prison work programs. It also wants lawmakers to evaluate and facilitate public and private partnerships that improve pre- and post-release employment opportunities for inmates.

I am disappointed but not especially surprised that the White House is indicating that it is only willing to support a more modest prison reform bill rather than all the significant sentencing reforms that appear in the SRCA.  Prez Trump has to date only voiced support for prison reform efforts, and he has formally and informally talked up a "tough and tougher" approach to sentencing drug dealers.  Those eager to see reductions in federal drug sentences should likely be grateful many leading GOP legislators favor such reforms because otherwise Prez Trump might well be actively advocating for enhancing the severity of federal drug sentences.  

I have long been saying that, for various reasons and for lots of offenders, significant prison reform could end up even more consequential than some proposed sentencing reform.  Thus, I sincerely hope that everyone interested in the kinds of reforms that the SRCA represent will be prepared to get behind the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA) and work to make it as effective and expansive and consequential as possible.  Some version of the PRRA looks now to be the only significant federal criminal justice reform proposal with a realistic chance of becoming law in 2018. 

It has already been nearly a decade since we have seen anything close to significant legislative reforms benefiting federal defendants or prisoners. (I am thinking of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act as the last big legislative change, though the 2014 "Drugs-2" guideline amendment was also a very big deal.)  I want to believe that the passage of something like the PRRA could help create new momentum for a range of reforms bog and small in Congress and elsewhere, and so the fact that the White House is endorsing some reform efforts is still encouraging despite its discouraging view of the SRCA.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)