By Christopher Zoukis
Ever since a wide-ranging bill to make substantial changes in federal criminal sentencing laws stalled late in the Obama administration, that issue has seen much discussion, but little action, on Capitol Hill.
But following the recent mid-term elections and a few other relevant developments, some observers are suggesting there’s a chance the lame-duck Congress that will meet for a short time after Thanksgiving might be able to make bipartisan breakthroughs to pass legislation on adopting prison reforms or even revising criminal sentencing laws.
This spring, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 5682, the “First Step Act” (short for “Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person”), a prison-reform measure, with bipartisan backing. As the name suggests, this bill focuses on reducing recidivism and make some useful, but relatively minor, improvements in prison conditions (such as restricting shacking of pregnant inmates, and promoting the skills inmates need to re-enter society after being released).
It handily passed the House on May 22 with 360 “yea” and only 59 “nay” votes; all but two of the negative votes were cast by Democrats, who echoed pro-sentencing reform groups in criticizing the measure as failing to make major changes in sentencing laws, such as repealing mandatory minimum sentences.
A Senate bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 1917), would make many of the broader changes sought by those dissenters. Introduced over a year ago and cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February, its co-sponsors include both outgoing and incoming Senate Judiciary Committee chairmen, Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), minority whip Richard Durbin (D-IL).
In the waning days of this Congress, Grassley is pressing to take up the House-passed bill with some sentencing reform provisions from the Senate bill added on. These include: reducing to 25 years, rather than life, the mandatory sentences for a third conviction for some drug offenses; eliminating mandatory double-time sentences for some weapons and drug offenses; giving judges more leeway to hand down below current minimum sentences for some low-level offenses; and making retroactive a 2010 law which cut the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.
The nation’s largest law enforcement labor organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, recently endorsed the proposed revision, and President Trump, once ambiguous on sentencing reform, has recently urged Congress to send him the revised bill, pledging to sign it.
Senate leaders are now checking two potentially problematic groups – hardline Republicans skeptical of the sentencing changes, and Democrats who may see the proposal as still too limited or unpopular with their base, or be disinclined to join with GOP backers (several potential 2020 presidential contenders are still in this category) –to see how much support they can find for quick action.
Because only a couple weeks remain for the lame-duck 115th Congress and some key issues remain unresolved, it’s not very likely, but even so, if there’s a bipartisan mood, it might be possible to pass the revised bill, or at least fallback and clear the House-passed bill through the Senate. And even if it doesn’t happen this year, the last-minute effort likely shows momentum building for the future.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.