Vote on Criminal Justice Legislation on Hold in House

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By Jessica DaSilva

Sept. 20 — The House of Representatives will not vote on criminal justice overhaul legislation in September, a policy analyst from a conservative think tank told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 16.

However, House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) told the Economic Club of New York on Sept. 19, “I’m trying to get criminal justice reform this session of Congress,” according to a Bloomberg News report. Ryan said he was trying to get the measure passed “sooner rather than later.”

Ryan’s office referred Bloomberg BNA to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). McCarthy’s Communications Director Mike Long didn’t confirm whether the vote was delayed, but referred Bloomberg BNA to Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

Scalise’s Communications Director Chris Bond wrote in an e-mail that he couldn’t speak to the timing of a vote, but that the whip’s office was “presently in the member education process.”

Busy September?

The delay results from the reality of a busy September in an election year, said Nathan Leamer, policy analyst and outreach manager for the conservative R Street Institute. Leamer previously assessed that a vote likely wouldn’t happen if the party split over the issue (99 CrL 669, 9/14/16).

“I don’t think the timing was right on this for people to vote pre-election,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan organization advocating for nationwide changes to the criminal justice system.

Harris said USJAN tried to organize events to educate members of Congress on the benefits of supporting criminal justice overhaul legislation versus tough-on-crime rhetoric. That included teaming up with the Coalition for Public Safety and a conservative polling firm to gather voting data in swing states revealing widespread support among voters of all ideologies, Harris said.

Yet even that data, collected by conservative polling firm the Tarrance Group, wasn’t enough to inspire a vote this month, Harris said.

“Ultimately, I think this election cycle is unprecedented with its unpredictability,” she said.

‘A Grand Irony.’

The new polling data Harris mentioned revealed that a large majority of voters from both parties support reforming mandatory minimums—the subject of the delayed legislation—according to a press release from the Coalition for Public Safety. The poll surveyed voters in Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, the report stated.

More than 60 percent of Republican, Democrat and Independent voters in every state subject to polling supported a proposal that would allow for discretionary sentencing, rather than a mandatory minimum sentencing scheme, the release stated.

The proposed legislation would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, expand others, and add state law crimes as qualifying offenses for certain sentencing enhancements (98 CrL 181, 11/25/15).

“It’s a grand irony,” Harris said about the disconnect between Republican members’ hesitation on criminal justice legislation and constituent support.

“I think this is an unpredictable political climate and that’s a matter totally outside of our control,” Harris said.

Harris said the polling data is surprising because of how consistent it is with their past polling data (99 CrL 582, 8/3/16).

Even popular policy initiatives see an ebb and flow in support, Harris said. Meanwhile, criminal justice overhaul consistently sees support upward of 60 and 70 percent, she added.

“It’s just a no-brainer to support this stuff,” Harris said. “I think the risk lies in not supporting it.”

Lame Duck Prospects

Leamer told Bloomberg BNA that a vote might happen in early to mid-December, with more events aimed at educating conservative members taking place before and after Thanksgiving. But even if the House of Representatives passes legislation, Leamer said it could lag in the Senate where votes are slow and deliberate.

But Jason Pye, communications director and the director of justice reform for conservative think tank FreedomWorks, said he thinks if the House passes legislation in December, the Senate might push to have it on President Barack Obama’s desk before the president-elect takes office.

Leamer added that the extra time will give leadership from both parties the opportunity to come together and reevaluate the federal criminal justice system.

“I wouldn’t be all doom and gloom,” Leamer said. “We still have a couple more months to move the ball forward to make it a conservative win. Really, it would be a bipartisan win.”

Leamer, Harris and Pye all said despite the delay, their organizations will continue focusing on overhaul efforts at the state level, where Republicans are better able to unite on criminal justice solutions.

For example, Harris said USJAN has targets in 12 states and expects to see major overhaul legislation pass in at least two.

“Hopefully members of congress see this activity—see what's happening in their own backyards and see that their constituents support it and come back ready to work,” she said.

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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