Criminal Justice Reform Legislation Back in the Mix

By Erin Delmore

With the fight to gut Obamacare gripping Capitol Hill, elected officials say they see a bright spot of bipartisanship on an unlikely front: criminal justice reform. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley told POLITICO the languishing Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is moving to the front burner, right after the committee vets Donald Trump’s cabinet and Supreme Court nominees. The legislation passed committee last year, then stalled.

“If this bill was to go to the floor for a vote, it would receive 60, 70, 80 votes in the Senate. But right now Mitch McConnell is refusing to put it on the floor,” said Sen. Cory Booker Oct. 5.

While this year’s legislation isn’t expected to be substantially different, the people who vote on it are. Three opponents, off the committee: David Vitter of Louisiana is out of the Senate, David Perdue of Georgia is moving to another committee and Alabama’s Jeff Sessions is expected to be confirmed as Attorney General, stoking hopes the vote could exceed last year’s 15-5 count this go around and gain enough momentum to get heard on the floor.

The federal legislation focuses on targeting high-level drug traffickers and reducing minimum penalties for low-level, nonviolent offenders. New Jersey is a leader in the reform movement.

“What we must do is change the entire culture of corrections,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.

New Jersey is taking a big step implementing bail reform this month. The State Senate tried reworking solitary confinement laws last year — an effort that would have limited the practice beyond the federal law.

“Well the problem with solitary confinement is it’s counterproductive. It creates mental illnesses. It breeds contempt and anger and that’s not what we want to happen while someone’s in prison. It should be used very restrictively,” Lesniak said.

While America is home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, it’s home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Reform advocates argue, the system is economically unsustainable.

New Jersey’s prison population has been falling over the last decade — at a rate greater than almost every other state. Crime is going down, too. Between 2011 and 2014, the state crime rate fell by 20 percent, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. I asked Lesniak, a leader in the reform movement, if he expects national changes under the Trump administration.

“I do, because this is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s not a liberal or conservative issue. As a matter of fact, liberals and conservatives joined together to understand that we haven’t been smart by just warehousing prisoners. It costs a lot of money and it doesn’t produce good results. So, I’m very optimistic that Washington and Congress will follow New Jersey’s lead and I’m proud of that,” he said.

I spoke with criminal justice reform advocates outside government who were less sure. They said they’re focusing on reform at the state, county and local level, where a return is more promising.