An inmate stands by his cell door. 
Photo by Danny Johnston/AP

A major hurdle imperils criminal-justice reform

Over the course of a few days in July, President Obama (1) commuted the sentences of dozens of non-violent drug offenders; (2) delivered a striking address at the NAACP’s annual convention on the need for criminal-injustice reform; and (3) became the first sitting president to personally visit a federal prison, even meeting with a group of non-violent convicts. Obama was putting criminal-justice issues in the national spotlight in ways few presidents ever have.
 
And in general, his Republican critics said very little in response. As we discussed at the time, it used to be any Democratic talk about criminal-injustice reforms would be met with immediate, knee-jerk talking points about “soft-on-crime” liberals who want to “coddle” criminals, but now, GOP leaders are “absolutely” on board with major, bipartisan reforms.
 
Proponents of change have been cautiously optimistic, recognizing that the pieces are in place. But the New York Times reports today that legislators have run into some trouble.
[A]s Congress works to turn those goals into legislation, that joint effort is facing its most significant test – over a House bill that Koch Industries says would make the criminal justice system fairer, but that the Justice Department says would make it significantly harder to prosecute corporate polluters, producers of tainted food and other white-collar criminals.
 
The tension among the unlikely allies emerged over the last week as the House Judiciary Committee, with bipartisan support, approved a package of bills intended to simplify the criminal code and reduce unnecessarily severe sentences.
That may sound uncontroversial, but as the Times report added, some environmentalists are concerned “the real motive of Charles Koch … in supporting the legislation is to block federal regulators from pursuing potential criminal actions against his family’s network of industrial and energy companies, a charge the company denies.”
 
A Justice Department spokesperson added, “Countless defendants who caused harm would escape criminal liability by arguing that they did not know their conduct was illegal.”
 
If this measure is so problematic, why not remove it from the larger package of reforms? If only it were that simple.
 
Congressional Republicans have said they’re generally supportive of the broader effort, but they expect these provisions to remain intact. It leaves Democrats with a choice: move forward on a package, including this potentially problematic Koch-backed measure, in the hopes of reaching a larger goal, or risk watching the entire reform effort collapse as Republicans abandon the idea.
 
While that debate continues, a companion reform effort is also moving forward in the Senate, where’s it’s receiving a fair amount of bipartisan praise.
Top Senate Republicans and Democrats have reached a bipartisan deal on criminal justice reform, a breakthrough that has been years in the making.  The proposal … has the crucial backing of Sen. Chuck Grassley, the conservative chair of the Judiciary Committee.
 
The bill would reform federal prison sentencing to reduce some of the automatic and harsh punishments Congress passed since it began cracking down on drug use. It would end the federal “three strikes” rule and limit the use of mandatory 10-year sentences for offenders who have not committed violent or major felonies.
 
Beyond reforming the length of some prison terms, the bill would also bulk up rehab programs for selected inmates, including job training, drug treatment and religious programs designed to reduce recidivism. The proposal also restricts the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, an increasingly controversial practice in American prisons.
The bill, the “Criminal Justice Reform and Corrections Act,” has already picked up 27 co-sponsors – 14 Democrats and 13 Republicans.
 
Watch this space.
 

Koch Brothers

A major hurdle imperils criminal-justice reform