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Chuck Grassley (L) and Dick Durbin (R) are re-introducing a reform bill. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Criminal justice reform is moving again at the federal level after more than a year of inertia and disappointment for advocates. Two key bills are being introduced in Congress this week.

Why this matters: These bills — while only the first step in a long process — mark the first serious congressional engagement on criminal justice reform for more than a year. Reformers lost all their momentum during brutal 2016 political season in which candidate Donald Trump elevated "tough on crime" politics at the expense of bipartisan efforts to reduce prison sentences for non-violent criminals.

  1. On Monday, Republican Senators Orrin Hatch, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, David Perdue, and Rand Paul introduced legislation to ensure that all federal criminal laws take into account whether the person committing the crime did so with intent. Their bill, the Mens Rea Reform Act, sets a default intent standard, meaning the government can't convict somebody of a federal crime unless it can be proven the person committed the crime "knowingly and willfully."
  2. Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin want to pass "comprehensive legislation to review prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars." Grassley and Durbin said two weeks ago they planned to reintroduce their bill from the last Congress, and it could come out as soon as Tuesday, according to a source familiar with their efforts.

These bills are important both substantively and politically. Opposition to default mens rea standards — enshrining criminal intent standards at the federal level — was one of the main reasons why criminal justice reform legislation died in the Senate during the last Congress.

  • While it's only Republican senators introducing the mens rea bill, they've already won support for the reforms from groups on both sides of the aisle. Their press release includes statements of support from a Heritage Foundation scholar as well as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Federal Defenders of New York.
  • David Patton, Executive Director of the Federal Defenders of New York, said: "We are acutely aware of the need for mens rea reform. Over 80 percent of people charged with federal crimes are too poor to afford a lawyer, and nearly 80 percent of people charged with federal crimes are Black, Hispanic, or Native American. These are our clients, and too many of them are subject to laws that are neither fair nor consistent with traditional principles of criminal liability. This bill would help to remedy some of those failings."
  • Mark Holden, who leads Koch Industries' efforts to reform the criminal justice system, says he's optimistic that Congress can get rolling after months of stagnation.

Where the White House stands: It's still an open question. Jared Kushner is passionate about criminal justice reform — he often talks about how his father's incarceration changed his view about the issue — and he recently convened a meeting with a bipartisan coalition to discuss efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Criminal justice reformers also view WH Chief of Staff John Kelly as an ally. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants tougher sentences for drug offenders and remains unpersuaded by Kushner's ideas.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

Report: U.S. calls for UN-led Afghan peace talks

Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, D.C., in February. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a letter outlining a plan to accelerate peace talks with the Taliban that the U.S. is "considering" a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Afghan outlet TOLOnews first reported Sunday.

Why it matters: In the letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, also obtained by Western news outlets, Blinken expresses concern that the Taliban "could make rapid territorial gain" after an American military withdrawal, even with the continuation of U.S. financial aid, as he urges him to embrace his proposal.

Harry and Meghan accuse British royal family of racism

Photo: Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via Reuters

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle delivered a devastating indictment of the U.K. royal family in their conversation with Oprah Winfrey: Both said unnamed relatives had expressed concern about what the skin tone of their baby would be. And they accused "the firm" of character assassination and "perpetuating falsehoods."

Why it matters: An institution that thrives on myth now faces harsh reality. The explosive two-hour interview gave an unprecedented, unsparing window into the monarchy: Harry said his father and brother "are trapped," and Markle revealed that the the misery of being a working royal drove her to thoughts of suicide.

Updated 6 hours ago - Axios Twin Cities

In photos: Thousands rally for George Floyd ahead of Derek Chauvin's trial

Demonstrators on March 7 outside the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with murdering George Floyd, will begin in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of protesters marched through Minneapolis' streets Sunday, urging justice for George Floyd on the eve of the start of former police officer Derek Chauvin's trial over the 46-year-old's death, per AFP.

The big picture: Chauvin faces charges for second-degree murder and manslaughter over Floyd's death last May, which ignited massive nationwide and global protests against racism and for police reform. His trial is due to start Monday, with jury selection procedures.