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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

Mike Allen, author of AM
5 hours ago - World

Courage vs. coddling with China

Peng Shuai of China serves during the China Open in Beijing in 2017. Photo: Andy Wong/AP

The women's professional tennis tour suspended tournaments in China Wednesday out of concern for Peng Shuai, on the same day that a top business voice made excuses for Beijing.

Why it matters: Ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Beijing, some sports figures are taking on the regime — while Big Business shrinks from confrontation with the world's second-largest economy.

5 hours ago - Sports

What to know about the first MLB lockout since 1995

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Hope you enjoyed the recent flurry of free-agent activity, because it's likely the last non-lockout-related MLB news for a while.

Driving the news: The owners locked out the players after the collective bargaining agreement expired at midnight last night, leading to MLB's ninth work stoppage — and first since 1995.

Biden extends mask mandates for travelers into 2022

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House on Dec. 1. Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

President Biden will announce new testing protocols for international travelers on Thursday and extend masking requirements through March as the U.S. prepares to fight the Omicron variant this winter, according to senior administration officials.

Driving the news: The U.S. will tighten pre-departure testing protocols starting early next week by requiring all inbound international travelers to take COVID-19 tests within one day of their departure rather than three.