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

The campaign for criminal justice reform ends with a whimper

In the wake of Republican gains in the 2014 midterms, expectations were understandably low for the 114th Congress. President Obama and the GOP majority on Capitol Hill freely acknowledged they agreed on practically nothing, leading to widely held assumptions that Congress would simply tread water for two years, accomplishing nothing.

There was, however, an exception: criminal justice reform. If policymakers were going to do anything of significance, this was the issue to watch. Obama told the NAACP last year that there’s actually broad agreement on overhauling the costly and ineffective status quo: “It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers…. That’s good news.”

And while that was all true, the bad news is nothing is going to happen. NBC News reported the other day:
In a huge disappointment to advocates, legislation to reform components of the criminal justice system will not come before the House adjourns this month as previously planned, according to two sources who have worked closely on the effort. […]

House Speaker Paul Ryan had said earlier this year that he planned on bringing up criminal justice reform bills in September during the small window that Congress is in Washington between their August break and before they adjourn at the end of September to continue campaigning for re-election. But that timing has proven difficult.
With members trying to avoid a government shutdown, and then leaving D.C. as quickly as possible, the issue appears to be effectively dead. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of Congress’ most notable champions of a bipartisan compromise, is starting to look ahead to 2017.

In theory, one of the principal sticking points in any legislative fight is cost – Republicans, reflexively skeptical of “government spending,” are generally opposed to any priority that requires greater public investment – but criminal justice reform actually saves money. It’s one of the reasons there were high hopes for the bill in this Congress.

So what happened?

The New York Timesreport on this rings true: the reform push died because Republicans splintered.
[T]he election, Donald J. Trump’s demand for “law and order” and a series of other political calculations got in the way.

Senate Republicans divided on the wisdom of reducing federal mandatory minimum sentences. Other Republicans, unhappy that President Obama was reducing hundreds of federal prison sentences on his own, did not want to give him a legacy victory. A surge in crime in some urban areas gave opponents of the legislation a new argument.

Now, the Senate authors of the legislation say it is effectively dead.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who recently argued the United States doesn’t imprison nearly enough of its population – we have an “under-incarceration problem,” he said – played a key role in derailing the bipartisan bill.

The future of the initiative will depend almost entirely on the outcome of the presidential election. Hillary Clinton is an enthusiastic proponent of systemic reforms, and many of her priorities are consistent with the provisions in the bipartisan Senate bill. And while Donald Trump has not unveiled a criminal-justice plan, per se, his campaign rhetoric makes clear he envisions an entirely different, hardline approach.

That said, several GOP leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), are on board with the reform effort, and there’s at least a chance of success in the next Congress if Clinton prevails.



The campaign for criminal justice reform ends with a whimper