May 9, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Prison reform's catch 22

Prisoners making phone calls

Photo: John Moore / Getty Images

The newest House prison reform bill — which could send 4,000 prisoners home, make it easier to earn time in house arrest or halfway homes, and would provide hygiene products to incarcerated women — will be voted on in the House Judiciary Committee this morning.

Why it matters: Democrats scored several wins on this version of the bill, but it still might not be enough to secure approval without reforms to federal sentencing guidelines. And even if the bill manages to pass committee this morning — or even the full House — without those sentencing reforms, the bill is not likely to make it far in the Senate.

  • Meanwhile, many House Republicans, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, are unwilling to address sentencing.

Inside the Senate:

  • Sens. John Cornyn (R) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D) introduced a Senate companion bill to the House's First Step Act on Monday.
  • But so far, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley's bill, which includes lowering mandatory minimum sentences, has the most clout and bipartisan support.
  • Grassley's spokesperson told Axios that for "any criminal justice reform proposal to advance in the Senate, it must also include needed sentencing reforms that will give judges additional discretion at sentencing and free up resources to target the worst criminals."
  • Sen. Mike Lee, a key voice in this debate, has supported most prison and sentencing reform efforts, but told Axios that although he "fully supports" the newest House bill, "sentencing reform elements will have to be added for it to pass the Senate."
  • However, another GOP congressional aide told Axios that "adding controversial sentencing reductions to this consensus bill would again be fatal and guarantee Congress does nothing on criminal justice reform."      

What outside groups are saying

  • The Leadership Conference — whose members include the NCAACP Leadership Defense and Education Fund and the Human Rights Campaign — came out in opposition to the bill on Tuesday, arguing this is Congress' one chance to pass comprehensive criminal justice reform, and the House should not settle on prison reform only.
"In this case, something isn’t better than nothing."
— The Leadership Conference talking points memo
  • The Brennan Center for Justice also sent a letter to House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Ranking Member Jerry Nadler, opposing the bill. They wrote that although the First Step Act had important reforms, "it does not take steps to reduce the number of people entering prison in the first place."
  • Benjamin Seel, legal analyst for Democracy Forward, also opposes the bill, accusing President Trump of bending "federal prison policy to reward his cronies in the private prison industry while making re-entry harder and the path to recovery less certain," he told Axios.
  • But other influential groups such as the Koch Institute and #Cut50, who also would support sentencing reforms, have advocated for the latest House prison reform bill.

Go deeper: Democrats score wins with revamped House prison reform bill.

Go deeper