Senate To Vote On Criminal Justice Bill After Push From Boosters, White House | WOSU Radio

Senate To Vote On Criminal Justice Bill After Push From Boosters, White House

Dec 11, 2018
Originally published on December 11, 2018 6:27 pm

Bowing to pressure from the White House and activist groups, the Senate will schedule a vote on legislation that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenders and support programs that prepare prisoners for life after incarceration.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would move ahead with consideration of the bill before the end of this year's lame-duck session after sponsors agreed to certain changes to the package.

"At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that have been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill," McConnell announced on Tuesday.

It's not certain when exactly a vote will take place, but the Senate could begin weighing the legislation as soon as the end of this week.

President Trump came out in favor of the legislative package last month, saying it was a rare "bipartisan" compromise and that it would help reduce crime.

But in the weeks that followed, the fate of the bill seemed uncertain. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas was vocal in his opposition. Republican leaders in the Senate also seemed to cast doubt about whether there was enough support in their caucus to move ahead with the bill before this year's Congress expires.

Criminal justice activists pressed McConnell to act, urging the public to flood his office with messages of support. Proponents of the bill argued it had plenty of support from both parties.

Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law who serves as a top White House adviser, also lobbied for the bill. He promoted it during an appearance Monday night on Sean Hannity's Fox News show.

Making changes to the nation's prisons has been a top priority for Kushner, whose father spent time in federal prison.

Resistance in the Senate has convinced supporters of the bill to make some changes, including limiting the ability of judges to reduce sentences for certain offenders and excluding certain offenders from a supervised release program.

The House of Representatives also must pass the bill before it could go to the White House for Trump's signature. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has expressed support for the effort.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A bill that could bring big change to the criminal justice system got the go-ahead today from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. After weeks of apparent reluctance, McConnell said he will allow the Senate to vote on the measure. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe joins us now. Hey there, Ayesha. Welcome to the studio.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.

CORNISH: So before we get into the politics of the bill, remind us just what's in it, what it would do.

RASCOE: So essentially it provides incentives to certain prisoners to take part in training programs that would help them after being released from prison. And in exchange, they get their time in prison reduced. It also lowers mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, and it would give judges discretion in certain cases not to impose mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. This is a bill that has a lot of support from the White House and from various groups including the ACLU and from conservative activists like the Koch brothers.

CORNISH: Even with all that support, the Senate majority leader has been hesitant to schedule a vote. So what's changed?

RASCOE: Well, he's been facing a lot of pressure from conservatives, from the White House. Groups had been urging supporters to flood his offices with - his office with messages pushing him to take action. You had President Trump tweeting about this last week. And then you had his adviser Jared Kushner on Fox News last night promoting this bill.

So there was a lot of pressure for McConnell to do something. To help move things along, sponsors of the bill agreed to make some changes. That was enough to get McConnell to agree to allow a vote, but it still seems he's not - seems like he's not totally sold on the bill.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I'm still looking at it. It's going to have some amendments. I think Senator Cotton and those who have his view are entitled to amendments. I'm going to make sure they can offer them and then decide based on what the bill looks like at the end whether it's supported.

RASCOE: So that's McConnell mentioning allowing amendments from Senator Tom Cotton, who has been a big opponent of the bill. Advocates have raised concerns in the past that if the bill is changed too much, that they might lose support from Democrats. But some activists are saying they're confident that they'll be able to overcome any amendments that Cotton might offer up.

CORNISH: I mean, you mentioned that negotiators have already made changes - right? - in order to get McConnell to allow a vote. So what - tell us more about these changes.

RASCOE: So critics of the bill like Cotton were saying that it would let out these violent criminals and that that would lead to more crime. So to address those concerns, lawmakers have limited the type of offenders who would be eligible for this program for supervised release. And they also narrowed a measure that granted judges more discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences.

CORNISH: And the supporters of the measure - are they OK with these changes?

RASCOE: Well, I talked to one supporter, Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan group that advocates for ending mass incarceration. Her group doesn't agree with the changes, but it still supports the bill because they say the overall impact will largely be the same.

The general consensus among supporters of the bill seems to be that they are cautiously optimistic. They are hopeful that this will make it into law. But right now, they're not really spiking the football because they say that things could fall apart.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Ayesha, thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.