Aug 1, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Senate plans barrage on crime

Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin are seen during a congressional hearing.

Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are working to win Senate passage of a big criminal justice reform package this Congress.

Why it matters: Crime is spiking in big cities. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is still working on a police reform measure. The bipartisan dynamic duo atop the Senate Judiciary Committee is stepping up, passing three piecemeal bills out of their committee.

  • Grassley and Durbin were the original cosponsors of the First Step Act — a sweeping criminal justice bill passed during the Trump administration.
  • The bills they passed out of committee this year would broaden its impact, make it easier for elderly incarcerated people to be released from prison, and prevent prosecutors from using actions for which defendants have been acquitted to win a longer sentence.

What they're saying: It's these three measures, Grassley told Axios, they "hope to package along with potentially other proposals to pass the Senate sometime this Congress."

  • Durbin told Axios in his own statement that he's "committed to bringing these bills to the Senate floor this Congress."

What to watch: The final package also may include a measure for the thousands of inmates who were released to home confinement during the pandemic but will be forced to return behind bars when it's over, a Republican Senate staffer told Axios.

  • In addition, it may address sentencing disparities in crack and powder cocaine offenses.

One challenge will be the crime spike, which has the potential of sapping support from senators afraid of being branded soft on crime.

  • "Negotiations have always been an important part of enacting criminal justice reform, and this time will be no different, especially given the increase in crime we are seeing across the country,” Grassley said.

Between the lines: It's still early, but advocates said they need to take advantage of any opening they see for criminal justice reform — especially since police reform has stalled.

  • They pointed to the House Judiciary Committee recently voting out the bipartisan EQUAL Act. It would eliminate disparities in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine offenses and allow some inmates to appeal their sentence.
  • Even normally critical Republicans like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) are cosponsors for the bill, which they take as a good sign.
  • That has supporters believing whatever emerges from the Senate can be packaged with House measures in conference committee and, ultimately, pass Congress.
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