House Dem introduces bill to incentivize states to reduce prison populations

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A House Democrat has introduced a criminal justice reform bill in the House meant to reduce the nation’s mass incarceration rate.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) introduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act on Wednesday, along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who introduced a companion bill in the Senate in June.

The measure would create $20 billion in grant funding over 10 years to incentivize states to reduce their prison populations. To qualify, states would have to reduce their inmate populations by 7 percent every three years without increasing crime rates. 

The lawmakers say the funding is today’s equivalent to the $12.5 billion authorized by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to encourage states to build more prisons.


“We think, and you all know this, that money talks,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel for the Washing office of the Brennan Center for Justice, which helped craft the legislation.

“That’s why trying to incentivize states by giving them grant money they need and can use to put better processes and programs in place is a formula for success, is a formula to bring down mass incarceration rates in the United States.”   

The announcement comes about a week after Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced plans to reintroduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

That bill, first introduced in 2015, would reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain federal drug offenses and armed career criminals while increasing mandatory minimums for other crimes like domestic violence that results in the death of a victim.

Though the legislation had bipartisan support, a small group of conservative members, who worried dangerous criminals would be released, kept it from ever getting to the floor for a vote.

Booker, who was a co-sponsor, said he will continue to support the bill.

“I’m happy that we have legislation that specifically addresses federal laws, but here is legislation that will help states change their reality for mass incarceration,” he said of the bill he introduced Wednesday.

“Federal incarceration is only about 10 percent of all the incarcerated people in our country. We’ve got to really figure out ways at getting at state incarceration rates as well.”

Senators, who couldn’t get criminal justice reform passed during a supportive Obama administration, now face a president who campaigned on a law-and-order platform in additional to an attorney general who has ordered federal prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious crimes possible that by definition “carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimums.”

But Booker said he’s confident this bill and other criminal reform measures will eventually get through Congress. 

“We think we are on the cutting edge of a larger movement in this country,” he said, noting prison reform advocates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R_Ga.).

“It’s not a question of if this bill will pass, it’s a matter of when,” he said.

“If you are a fiscal conservative in this country, this is one of the best investments you can do with a public dollar — to incentivize states to do evidence-based programs that will drive down public spending. I feel confident this is going to get done. It’s just a matter of how quickly we can push it.”

Tags Chuck Grassley Cory Booker Dick Durbin

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