Despite High Expectations, Sentencing Reform Proposals Still On Ice

Expectations for movement on justice reform had been high, but sources tell NPR that concrete language on sentencing and criminal justice overhauls is still being hotly debated behind closed doors. (AP)
Expectations for movement on justice reform had been high, but sources tell NPR that concrete language on sentencing and criminal justice overhauls is still being hotly debated behind closed doors. (AP)

Advocates and inmates working to overhaul the criminal justice system will have to wait at least a little longer for congressional action.

The Republican leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, said he won't hold a public event on sentencing reform proposals until after the August recess, as language is still being drafted by a bipartisan working group. And in the U.S. House, lawmakers and their aides will spend at least the next five weeks making adjustments to a sweeping bill sponsored by 40 Democrats and Republicans, sources told NPR Friday.

Expectations for movement on justice reform had been high, in part because of political support from libertarian-leaning Republicans, liberal Democrats and interest groups ranging from Koch Industries to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Earlier this week, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership team, suggested that a hearing and markup on proposals could be imminent.

"This seems to be another area where there's a lot of common ground, where a lot needs to be done, and I'm reassured by the bipartisan support we've seen, an optimism that we can get something important done," Cornyn said Tuesday.

But multiple sources from Capitol Hill, the executive branch and the advocacy community said concrete language on sentencing and criminal justice overhauls is still being hotly debated behind closed doors in both the Senate and the House. The Obama administration, including Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, has been pressing to relax mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes.

Yates discussed the idea last week at a bipartisan reform summit, telling the audience: "At its core, one of the basic problems with the mandatory minimum system is that it's based almost exclusively on one factor — drug quantity. And so we have a hard time distinguishing the cartel leader who needs to be in prison for a long time from the low-level mope who doesn't."

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, went even farther at that event. "I consider ending mandatory minimums a moral calling," Leahy said, citing data that minorities are disproportionately subjected to those tough penalties.

The principles on the table now in the Senate would not eliminate all mandatory minimums, and, in fact, some Republicans are pressing to create new ones, for other crimes. Another key issue is how the bill will come to define crimes of "violence," which could exclude thousands of prisoners from taking advantage of the legislative changes.

And in the House, a massive bill called the SAFE Justice Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., got a boost this month when House leaders confirmed it would get time on the floor this year. But what the bill will look like by then is an open question, after the Justice Department and some police groups expressed concerns about its scope. Lawmakers are working to tweak the language over the next couple of months.

Congressional sources say they're moving carefully, to avoid falling into the same traps as they did in debate over the landmark 1994 crime bill, which imposed tough mandatory criminal penalties on defendants, incentivized states to build more jails and prisons, and barred inmates from being awarded grants to pursue education. All of those issues are now being rethought, more than two decades later.

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