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Odd Couples Push Criminal Justice Overhauls (Updated)

Cornyn and Whitehouse conduct a Feb. 10 news conference in the Capitol's Senate studio on bipartisan legislation to reform the prison system. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Cornyn and Whitehouse conduct a Feb. 10 news conference in the Capitol's Senate studio on bipartisan legislation to reform the prison system. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 3:41 p.m. | John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse. Mike Lee and Richard J. Durbin. Rand Paul and Harry Reid.  

Those three Senate odd couples have been spearheading the rollout of legislation this week that, taken together, would affect prison sentences for convicted criminals, how long they might serve and what happens to them when they’ve paid their debt to society. That follows Paul teaming up with Judiciary Committee ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy earlier this month.  

And if even one of the bills could move through the committee process and then secure some precious Senate floor time, who knows what might happen.  

The first move came from Cornyn. The Texas Republican and majority whip joined with Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who held a news conference Tuesday to tout the reintroduction of their bill that would draw on the experience of state-level programs to require some offenders to use recidivism reduction programs, with corresponding reductions in the time served in a federal prison.  

The senators said Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has expressed a willingness to bring the bill up in his committee. In the last Congress, under Democratic control, the bill sailed through the committee, 15-2.  

“This is a debate that we welcome. There’s a lot of things that we can do to improve our criminal justice system, and there’s a lot of it being discussed. Things like mandatory minimums, sentencing reform, over criminalization … a lot of things that we can do better,” Cornyn said. “This is perhaps the best place to start because this does have such broad, bipartisan support in the Judiciary Committee. Chairman Grassley has indicated a willingness to mark this up, and make it available for floor action.”  

Whitehouse also said he looked forward to a broader conversation.  

“We hope the prospect of this bill moving forward can help catalyze those efforts,” Whitehouse said.  

Durbin, the minority whip, is working with a coalition of senators now led by Lee, the chairman of the Steering Committee and a conservative from Utah, on perhaps the biggest piece of the debate.  

“We have a pretty strong group that support the Smarter Sentencing Act, and it goes to the front end of the process, the sentencing. The Cornyn-Whitehouse bill deals with how people earn credits for early release,” the Illinois Democrat said Wednesday. “The two are complementary, and they may work together.”  

At a news conference Thursday, Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, had the backing of a “wingnut coalition.”  

“I think we can … do some amazing things here if we work together on issues of liberty, of justice, of things that will make us proud as Americans,” he said.  

The sentencing bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent drug felonies. It also would retroactively apply changes to the sentencing rules regarding the disparity in mandatory minimums for crack and powder cocaine to offenses that took place before the August 2010 enactment of legislation that closed the gap.  

“Take a look at the co-sponsorship on this bill. Mike Lee is now the lead — we switched. Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, Rand Paul. I mean, it’s an interesting group, and it suggests to me that we have the kind of bipartisan beginning in this effort that could be successful,” Durbin said ahead of the rollout.  

In another sign of the breadth of support for sentencing changes, Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., one of the leaders on the sentencing changes, is scheduled to speak Thursday evening at an event sponsored by Generation Opportunity, a group whose funding is linked to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.  

Generation Opportunity launched an effort to promote overhauling criminal justice programs, particularly for non-violent crimes, earlier this month.  

“The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but makes up 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Most of these offenders are non-violent, and some have been locked up for decades because of unfair mandatory minimum sentences,” said Generation Opportunity President Evan Feinberg.  

On a related note, Paul has revived legislation with Reid that would restore federal voting rights for some non-violent offenders after they have served their time.  

“A criminal record is currently one of the biggest impediments to voting in federal elections. The Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act will reform existing federal law and give low-level ex-offenders another opportunity to vote,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement. “This is an issue that I feel strongly about, and I will continue to fight for the restoration of voting rights in the hopes of giving non-violent ex-offenders a second chance.”  

Paul is also working with Leahy on the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would give federal judges discretion to impose sentences that fall below mandatory minimums in some cases. That’s an approach that’s more broad than the one unveiled Thursday. Leahy supports the Lee-Durbin measure as well.  

The Judiciary chairman has been a skeptic of rolling back mandatory minimum sentences, however. Grassley came to the floor Thursday to torch the Lee-Durbin bill, saying that it was not supported by the facts.  

“The odds of an American being subject to a federal prosecution for drug possession in any given year are less than one in a million,” Grassley said. “It is also imperative to remember that mandatory minimum sentences are not an issue in these cases.  The average federal sentence for drug possession is 5 months. That’s only 5 months!  Not the years some of the proponents of lenient sentencing would have you believe.  And the brevity of federal drug possession sentences is emphasized by how in the vast majority of these cases, the median amount of drugs at issue is 48 pounds.”  

Lee conceded that convincing Grassley to move forward could be a tall order.  

“Look, it’s no mystery that Chairman Grassley hasn’t been a big fan of this bill to date,” Lee said. “We intend to do everything we possibly can to change that, and we also intend to look at other options, other opportunities to offer up these reforms in any forum possible, possibly suggesting amendments to other legislation. We want this passed into law, and we’re going to exhaust every option available to us.”  

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