McConnell Puts Kibosh on Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

Prospects for a major federal sentencing reform bill brightened on Wednesday with President Trump's announcement that he would support the effort, but by week's end, those prospects dimmed as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told the president he wouldn't bring the bill to a floor vote this year.

[Update: McConnell is facing pressure from the religious right as well as from the president to allow a vote.]

The grinch who stole sentencing reform. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
The bill is known as the First Step Act. The House passed a version of this spring, but the House version was limited to reforms on the "back end," such as slightly increasing good time credits for federal prisoners and providing higher levels of reentry and rehabilitation services.

The Senate bill crafted by a handful of key senators and pushed hard by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner incorporates the language of the House bill, but also adds actual sentencing reforms. Under the Senate bill:

  • Thousands of prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 (the date of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced, but did not eliminate sentencing disparities) would get the chance to petition for a reduced sentence.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses would be lowered.
  • Life sentences for drug offenders with three convictions ("three strikes") would be reduced to 25 years.

Even though the bill has been a top priority of Kushner's and had the support of numerous national law enforcement groups and conservative criminal justice groups, as well as the support of key Democrats, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), McConnell told Trump at a White House meeting Thursday that there wasn't enough time in the lame-duck session to take it up.

"McConnell said he didn't have the time, that's his way of saying this isn't going to happen," said Michael Collins, interim director of the Drug Policy Alliance's (DPA) Office of National Affairs. "McConnell was a roadblock under Obama and he's a roadblock now. He likes to hide behind the process but I think he just doesn't like or care about this issue."

McConnell's move upset what should have been a done deal, said Collins.

"Once First Step passed the House, some key figures on the Senate side, such as Sens. Durbin and Grassley, said it wouldn't move without sentencing reform, and then Kushner facilitated negotiations between the Senate and the White House and they reached broad agreement this summer," he recounted. "Then the question was can we get this to the floor? McConnell sat down with Grassley and Durbin and said after the elections, and Trump agreed with that. The idea was that if Trump would get on board, McConnell would hold a vote, would whip a vote. He wanted 60 votes; there are 60 votes. Then McConnell said the Senate has a lot to do. At the end of the day, it's up to McConnell. When Trump endorsed people thought it would move McConnell, but he just poured cold water on it."

If McConnell sticks to his guns, then sentencing reform will be dead in this Congress. And as long as Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, he is likely to be an impediment to reform.

"McConnell is the obstacle -- it's not Tom Cotton (R-AR) or Jeff Sessions -- it's McConnell, and he's going to be there next year and the year after that," said Collins. "He is the prime obstacle to criminal justice reform, even though a lot of groups on the right are in favor of this. Since he isn't going to listen to us, it's going to be up to them to figure this out."

"If McConnell doesn't prioritize this, it doesn't happen," said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group. That's a shame, she said, because "I'm optimistic both parties would support this if they got the chance."

There is a possible upside: Failure to pass limited criminal justice reform this year could lead to a bill next year that goes further than limited sentencing reforms.

"It's been a long, hard slog to get to where we are," said Collins, "but now some people are saying this compromise stuff gets us nowhere and we should be doing things like enacting retroactivity for sentencing reforms, eliminating all mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and decriminalizing all drugs."

"My job is to continue to beat the drum for change," said Gotsch. "It's always hard, and we don't get those opportunities a lot. Momentum doesn't come very often, regardless of who is in power, and we can't let these small windows close without doing our best to move the ball forward. This has been my concern for 20 years -- the conditions these prisoners face, the injustice -- and we will keep pushing. The federal prison system is in crisis."

The federal prison population peaked at 219,000 in 2013, driven largely by drug war prosecutions, and has since declined slightly to about 181,000. But that number is still three times the number of federal prisoners behind bars when the war on drugs ratcheted up under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. There is still lots of work to be done, but perhaps next time, we demand deeper changes.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of both Drug War Chronicle and Drug Reporter.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Dain Bramage's picture

Trump Lies, McConnell Sucks, Sun Rises

Yawn.  Yeah, McConnell is a fascist shit, just like the rest of the Republicans. 

I am repulsed, but I am not surprised.  How could anyone be surprised?

The Republicans have made it entirely clear that they know what the voters want; but the bastards have said "No", and they have given us the middle finger.

 So I say, to hell with ALL the sick-fuck, treasonous, fascist, violent, criminal Republicans!

Furthermore, why the FUCK is ANYBODY listening to ANYTHING that lying ass-clown motherfucker Trump says anymore?

McConnell Needs to Know citizens want prison reform

 

 

Dick Durbin from IL (someone I've written 4-5 times) is one the key figures trying to get prison reform moving. I take this as encouraging.

 

What is discouraging is that while I knew that many people were behind bars because of drug laws, but I didn't know how many and I didn't know how bad the laws were. A key from of legislation reform is to reduce a 3x time drug offender who would normally get life down to 25 years. They call the reform the "1st Step."  This sounds like some are listening to at least Harm Reduction arguments at might consider at least listening to anti-prohibition arguments. 

 

I think writing or phoning McConnell is my activist for the day and I encourage others. I think it is useful for him to know that many people are not happy with him.

Dain Bramage's picture

Republicans don't care what we think

Mitch McConnell already knows his policies are massively unpopular.  He has given us the middle finger.  Only solution is to dump ALL Republicans, because they simply are not going to act in the interests of their constituents.  That is not what they are there for, from their point of view.

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