Criminal Justice

McConnell, once a holdout, calls for Senate vote on criminal justice reform

President Donald Trump was joined on stage by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during a rally for U.S. Rep. Andy Bar in Richmond this fall.
President Donald Trump was joined on stage by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during a rally for U.S. Rep. Andy Bar in Richmond this fall.

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The GOP-controlled Senate will vote on a sweeping bill to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system before the end of the year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Tuesday.

He said recent changes to the bill, such as preventing some violent criminals from benefiting from its rehabilitation programs, had won over enough conservative holdouts to bring the measure to the floor, potentially by the end of the week.

“At the request of the president, and following improvements to the legislation that has been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill this month,” said McConnell. “I intend to turn to the new text as early as the end of this week.”

The bill could likely pass the Senate with the combined support of Republicans and Democrats, but GOP leaders have resisted moving legislation that doesn’t have the support of conservatives in their party. President Donald Trump has asked for this bill to be done by the end of the year, however, putting pressure on leaders to make changes and get it done.

“Unfortunately, the bill still has major problems [and] allows early release for many categories of serious, violent criminals,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, one of the plan’s biggest critics, said Tuesday.

McConnell threatened senators that they would have to return to the Capitol after Christmas and work until the New Year if they couldn’t reach an agreement on outstanding business.

“Members should either prepare to cooperate and work together — or prepare for a very, very long month,” McConnell warned.

The plan Trump and congressional leaders are pushing, called the First Step Act, would beef up rehabilitation programs for prisoners finishing their sentences, give judges more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug offenses, and improve living conditions for women in prison.

If prisoners participate in the bill’s anti-recidivism programs such as job training, education and faith-based classes, they could earn credits to be released from prison early and serve the remainder of their sentence in home confinement or halfway houses — something conservatives have voiced concern about.

Text of the new version of the bill had not been released as of Tuesday morning. It is expected to include changes proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to address conservatives’ concerns.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who crafted much of the bill’s reforms and serves as the GOP’s vote counter in the Senate, said Tuesday that the revised plan would keep people who used a firearm in their crime from participating in the early release program. It would also force the Bureau of Prisons to revoke early release privileges for prisoners who seriously violate the terms of the program while living under surveillance.

Those changes were not enough to win over critics like Cotton, who said Tuesday: “I look forward to debating this bill on the Senate floor and introducing amendments to address its many remaining threats to public safety.”

Kentucky, Texas and Georgia all passed criminal justice reforms for their states’ prison systems under conservative leadership — resulting in big savings at the same time its crime rate fell.

The federal plan the Senate will consider has not yet been assessed by the Congressional Budget Office, however, which runs the numbers on what legislation is expected to cost.

“I’m just not for saying okay let’s assume our sentencing laws are all unjust and we’re going to give it to the bureau of prisons and they’re going to fix it,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, one of the bill’s biggest critics said last week. “I also want to know what this thing is gonna cost.”

McConnell, who controls what legislation comes to the Senate floor, is one of the few lawmakers who hasn’t voiced strong opinions about a proposal that’s captured the attention of the White House, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and a myriad of conservative groups that spend big money electing Republicans.

McConnell declined questions from McClatchy about his personal opinion on the bill on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

He’s been under pressure from his home state, however, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky.

“This is bipartisan, has the support of President Donald J. Trump, and, simply put, makes common sense,” Paul said Tuesday of McConnell’s shift.

This story has been updated to include more details about the updated First Step Act.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.