Senators locked in negotiations over criminal justice reform

Senators locked in negotiations over criminal justice reform

Senators are searching for ways to win more Republican votes for a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that has stalled amid growing conservative opposition, including from Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe Memo: Trump faces enormous test with healthcare bill Brooks’s prior attacks on Trump could hurt in Alabama Senate race Three more GOP senators announce opposition to healthcare bill MORE (R-Texas).

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinGraham gets frustrated in public ‘unmasking’ debate Senate Dems set principles for potential budget negotiation Dem senator: GOP's healthcare approach will 'devastate Medicaid' MORE (D-Ill.) on Tuesday said lawmakers are negotiating changes to "key sections" of the sentencing reform legislation in an attempt to win more support.

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"We want to make sure that at the end of the day we have not lost too many people that we could help. So as we close down one category we may open another," Durbin, a member of his party's leadership team, told reporters. 

Lawmakers are said to be considering cutting a section from the bill that would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences for armed career criminals from 15 to 10 years, with that standard applied retroactively to people already in prison.

They are also looking at changing a provision that would prohibit sentencing judges from stacking mandatory minimums for armed drug or violent offenders. The new version would block individuals who have been convicted of a violent crime and possessing a firearm from being able to retroactively reduce their sentences.

In light of concerns from conservative colleagues, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyOvernight Cybersecurity: New ransomware attack spreads globally | US pharma giant hit | House intel panel interviews Podesta | US, Kenya deepen cyber partnership GOP chairman wants 'robust' tax reform process in the Senate Senate Dems plan floor protest ahead of ObamaCare repeal vote MORE (R-Iowa) said lawmakers are “continuing to work on a path forward.”

“We will maintain our core principles and the significance of the bill and the broad bipartisan support that this bill has already received,” Grassley said at a congressional briefing Tuesday evening with Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group that’s backing the legislation.

The push to avoid GOP infighting comes as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP senator: Dems should have been in healthcare process from start GOP senator under impression Trump doesn't have clear understanding of healthcare bill: report The Memo: Trump faces enormous test with healthcare bill MORE (R-Ky.) is defending 24 seats in the November elections and has not publicly committed to moving the legislation.

But opponents are remaining tight-lipped about whether the potential changes — which are still being negotiated — would be enough to garner their support.

Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonPuerto Rico’s statehood win was a ruse House bill threatens Russia with nuclear treaty suspension Cotton: US policy should be regime change in Iran MORE (R-Ark.) said he would be willing to look at any potential changes but voiced skepticism, suggesting that the Senate legislation is based on a “false premise” that non-violent first-time drug offenders are being locked up with lengthy sentences.

He added that in cases of “manifest injustice” there is already a solution: President Obama can give a pardon. As an example, he cited an ex-felon who is sentenced to 15 years after being caught carrying ammunition.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said the changes that have been floated to the bill are a good first step, but suggested more needs to be done.

“My heart is there. I think it’s an honorable effort,” he told reporters. “I still want somebody to tell me the numbers.” 

Cotton introduced legislation Tuesday, backed by Perdue and Sens. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsBrooks’s prior attacks on Trump could hurt in Alabama Senate race McCaskill attended reception at Russian ambassador's residence in 2015 Sessions: Supreme Court travel ban order a victory for separation of powers MORE (R-Ala.) and Orrin HatchOrrin HatchRift opens in GOP over budget strategy Overnight Finance: GOP divided over welfare cuts in budget | Lawmaker loses M on pharma stock he pitched | Yellen says another financial crisis unlikely in our lifetimes GOP chairman wants 'robust' tax reform process in the Senate MORE (R-Utah), that would require the administration to disclose recidivism rates for federal inmates released early because of reduced sentences.

The four senators also called the criminal justice reform bill “dangerous for America.”

Conservatives argue that the current Senate legislation would increase the crime rate and allow offenders out of jail who are likely to commit additional crimes. The critics say the bill also wouldn’t address “mens rea,” the term for individuals imprisoned after unknowingly committing a crime. 

Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeThe Memo: Trump faces enormous test with healthcare bill Three more GOP senators announce opposition to healthcare bill Senate GOP delays ObamaCare repeal vote past recess MORE (R-Utah) took a jab at critics of the bill on Tuesday, saying that some of the arguments being made are not “wedded” in facts.

“When politicians argue among themselves, as we so often do about public policy questions, it can be hard to know which side is right, especially when some making arguments are not exactly wedded to the facts, and especially when some who are trying to characterize a bill have not read it,” he said.

Advocates of criminal justice reform say they fear lawmakers are making too many concessions in what was already a hard-fought compromise.

“It was far from perfect to begin with it,” said Kevin Ring, vice president of strategic initiatives at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “It was far from being too bold or too ambitious and they just keep taking away more and more of the reforms.”   

Ring said lawmakers are making it impossible to know if more people will be helped or hurt by this bill, because it already includes provisions that expand certain mandatory minimums. 

“It’s hard to know how much reform is left in the reform bill,” he said.

Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said the mandatory minimum sentences now in effect have made it harder for people to turn away from crime.

“There’s no data that shows lengthy prison sentences are helpful to the cause of being able to return these people to society,” she said. “The longer you’re isolated from society, the more difficult it becomes to successfully re-enter society.”

From 2003 to 2013, Harris said, the 10 states that significantly decreased their prison populations saw a 13 percent drop in crime. The 10 states that significantly increased their prison populations only had an 8 percent drop in crime.

“I would agree that crime is dropping in certain places across the country, but to use that as an argument to support the status quo is a joke,” she said. “The states that have reform have seen the most success.”