Vote on Criminal Justice Overhaul Might Not Happen If GOP Split

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By Jessica DaSilva

Sept. 13 — House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan’s meeting with “top advocates” for criminal justice policy overhaul on Sept. 8 is just one of many happening on Capitol Hill that may indicate discord within the Republican party on the issue, according to a policy analyst at a conservative think tank.

Advocates and Republican members who support proposed legislation that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences are trying to get support from as many Republican members as they can despite tough law-and-order rhetoric from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, said Nathan Leamer, policy analyst and outreach manager for the R Street Institute.

That’s why think tanks and advocacy groups are flocking to Capitol Hill to explain why overhauling the criminal justice system is a conservative issue, Leamer said.

If the majority party is split on the issue, Leamer said the vote might not even happen.

“It’s crunch time,” Leamer said. “If they don’t get enough support from the membership, I don’t think they want to put themselves out on a ledge.”

Despite concerns that tough-on-crime rhetoric may quash a vote, Holly Harris—executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice advocacy organization—took a more optimistic view.

Harris said she doesn’t believe the presidential election will affect the outcome of the legislation.

“At the end of the day, Congress has it’s own agenda and it will move forward,” she said. “Is it the highest priority issue? No, but criminal justice reform is in the top tier, and I feel like we’re right there on the edge.”

Presidential Effect

There is a lot of misinformation on criminal justice reform, including incorrect statements from Trump about a rise in crime, Leamer said.

Trump’s rhetoric is “bringing out the fears of the party members” regarding crime rates, particularly crime involving immigrants illegally living in the U.S., Leamer said.

“To be honest, if it was someone like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Rand Paul, we would be having a totally different conversation,” Leamer said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the bill’s sponsor, tempered expectations for the bill’s passage in remarks delivered on Sept. 7 at a forum on criminal justice sentencing overhaul hosted by a religious-based organization that advocates for families of incarcerated people.

“I hope the House will keep in mind the prospects for Senate passage of any bill it passes,” Grassley said in his prepared remarks. “Some items would be unacceptable to Democrats and some will be a problem for enough Republicans that floor time might not become available. The Senate will not feel compelled to take up just any bill the House passes.”

The Right Messenger

Harris said she thinks Ryan (R-Wis.) will bring the legislation to the floor as soon as he has the votes to pass it. The events being held are purely to educate Republican members who might be hesitant about supporting the bill, she said.

“That’s the message we’re driving home right now,” Harris said. “You are reinforcing your conservative principals if you vote for criminal justice reform.”

Harris said the nature of a presidential election means some candidates are clinging to the old-school mentality that being tough on crime wins elections. But that rhetoric is rapidly losing support, she explained.

Ryan faced attacks from his opponent in the primary, Paul Nehlen, about his support for criminal justice overhaul legislation in Washington and won handily, Harris said.

“Speaker Ryan didn’t just beat him,” she said. “He obliterated him.”

That discrepancy is why Harris said conservative groups’ focus has been on making sure that they not only convey the right message about justice overhaul, but that they choose the right messengers as well.

For example, Harris said Right on Crime, one of USJAN’s conservative member groups, held an event Sept. 9 featuring politicians from Texas, South Carolina and Georgia.

The messaging at that event covered basic topics about how to keep states prison budgets from increasing and why investing in services that reduce re-offense rates for released inmates better supports small government and trimmer budgets.

The panel of speakers consisted of former Texas state representative Jerry Madden, South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling and Georgia state senator Josh McKoon. All three discussed the impact that overhauling their respective states’ criminal justice policies had on their states’ budgets and crime rates.

That simple message is about getting as many conservatives on board with the legislation as possible, Leamer said.

“I think it comes down to whether we can turn that number to 75, to 80, to 85 [percent support],” he said.

Changing the Conversation

Those who oppose revamping the criminal justice system are a small, but vocal minority trying to scare members who aren’t familiar with the issue, Leamer said.

Harris holds a similar view, which is why she said she’s not afraid of the Republican Party splitting over the legislation.

“I think the voices of opposition are on an island and on the wrong side of history,” she said. “Ten years from now, a vote against reform is going to haunt you. Just ask [Democratic Presidential Nominee] Hillary Clinton.”

While the Trump campaign has not changed its message, Harris said Trump surrogates have pivoted their messages toward attacking Clinton for supporting the 1994 Crime Bill that established mandatory minimums and contributed to today’s mass incarceration problem.

That shows the conversation on justice legislation has changed, Harris said.

“I understand it’s a presidential year—everyone is a little skittish,” she said. “But of all the votes members take this year, this one should be the easiest.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva in Washington at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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