Policy

Cotton: Criminal Justice Bill 'Dead' in Congress

Cotton is a top opponent of a bill that would reduce criminal sentences.

Cotton opposes the sentencing bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sen. Tom Cotton declared Thursday a criminal justice overhaul bill "dead" in the Senate, despite bipartisan support from some top leaders.  

The Arkansas Republican is one of the key opponents of the Sentencing and Corrections Reform Act , which would reduce some mandatory criminal sentences and facilitate criminal re-entry into society. The bill has led to unlikely bipartisan alliances, but divisions within the Republican Party threaten its future.  

“I believe the criminal leniency bill is dead in this here Congress,” Cotton said in a speech at the Hudson Institute. He elaborated in a question and answer session that it is not likely to be passed this year because "it’s deeply divisive within the Senate and the House."  

[ 'Sentencing Reform' is Seriously Stuck ]

Cotton argued the bill would lead to the release of thousands of dangerous felons. Pointing to a 77 percent recidivism rate , Cotton said those felons will likely commit crimes again.  

“You cannot decrease the severity of sentences without increasing crime,” Cotton said.   

"By and large I think the pro-leniency advocates’ heart is in the right place,” Cotton said, noting that advocates are seeking to combat poverty and a lack of opportunity. “I think the facts are simply not on their side.”  

Proponents of the Senate bill, which include both party whips, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill, and conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, argue that is not the case, that their bill would apply to low-level, nonviolent offenders. The Judiciary Committee approved the bill in October, and the backers recently unveiled changes to address some concerns about the legislation and garner more support.  

[ Banishing the Ghost of Willie Horton to Promote Criminal Justice Reform ]

"It's in [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell's hands to decide whether to bring it to the floor," Durbin said Thursday. "It's ready for the floor. Sen. Grassley and I have told him that."  

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said Thursday that he has not spoken to McConnell recently about the issue.  

[ Popular Criminal Justice Bill Poses Political Risk ]

"I’m hoping that the House moves quickly because I thin it will help enhance our chances over here,” Grassley said, though a package of criminal justice bills faces its own obstacles in the House.  

Cotton said he would oppose any effort to move the bill forward, but is willing to work with colleagues on other measures, particularly improving rehabilitation and training in prisons to prepare criminals for re-entry.  

Contact Bowman at  bridgetbowman@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc .    

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