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Senators See Bipartisan Momentum for Criminal Justice Overhaul

Proposals to overhaul the criminal justice system are piling up in Grassley's committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators' plans for an overhaul of the criminal justice system are piling up in the Judiciary Committee — and the latest spate of officer-involved tragedies could give them a boost.  

While many bills touching all aspects of criminal justice sit idly by, recent movement in the committee shows change could be coming. One bill seeks to review the entire criminal justice system, while another approved last month addresses recidivism; and a subcommittee is set to review body cameras for police officers.  

But even as senators speak of change and bills pop up in the hopper, America can expect a slower, more measured response from the Senate.  

Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, who ultimately decides what bills see daylight in committee, is focused for now on sentencing issues.  

“The only thing that we’re in the middle of now is sentencing reform,” said Grassley, an Iowa Republican. “We’ve got 18 months left in this Congress, so there’s a lot coming down the pike. But I can’t give you a priority.”  

Grassley said he’s agreed to meet with colleagues and the White House on mandatory minimums, and a Judiciary aide confirmed Friday staff talks have begun.  

Majority Whip John Cornyn said on the Senate floor last week that "comprehensive everything" has led to mistakes. But the Texas Republican has taken an active role in sponsorship and promotion of several bills aimed at the issue.  

Freshman Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, joined by Cornyn and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently introduced a bill calling for a 14-member commission of presidential and congressional appointees to review the entire criminal justice system, going beyond the presidential policing task force that offered recommendations in March.  

“What we hope to accomplish is to have a true, top-to-bottom review of the criminal justice system, similar to what happened close to 50 years ago under President [Lyndon B.] Johnson,” the Michigan Democrat told CQ Roll Call. “It was viewed as necessary to have a comprehensive look at the justice system, not just look at police tactics, or prison reform or sentencing reform ... but to take a comprehensive look at it in a broad sense.”  

In 1965, Johnson created the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which called primarily for changes to the juvenile justice system and how local police interact with the communities they serve; from it came the 911 emergency phone number.  

While President Barack Obama’s task force focused on policing, it also called for an overview of the entire criminal justice system, like the one Peters is proposing. The commission bill has not yet been scheduled for committee consideration, though Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri told CQ Roll Call he has since come on as a co-sponsor, as have Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.  

Many senators also see limits on what the federal government can do to regulate local police, leaving investigations, hearings and funding as the most likely tools for Congress.  

"You have to understand the role of the federal government," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat and former prosecutor from Missouri. "I think the federal response has been primarily sided around bringing the bright light of an independent investigation into the underlying acts and then, particularly in Ferguson, looking at patterns and practices."  

So far, McCaskill said the federal statutes have been providing the necessary oversight, and she is working on a bill to overhaul federal allocation of resources to local law enforcement.  

Grassley, often portrayed as a hawk on sentencing, told reporters at the National Press Club a few weeks ago that his problem has always been with certain bills and across-the-board cuts to mandatory minimums.  

“I agree that some should be cut,” he said. “But, I also think that some should be raised. With a heroin epidemic strangling some of our communities, and white-collar criminals getting paltry sentences, the last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys.”  

At the end of April, the Judiciary Committee approved a bill by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., aiming to reduce recidivism by expanding services for, and improving responses to, those in the criminal justice system with mental health issues.  

A Judiciary subcommittee also will soon hold a hearing on equipping police departments with body cameras at the request of Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., but other ideas are being held for now.  

It is unlikely any criminal justice bill will be considered by the full Senate before the Memorial Day recess, but proponents have a powerful ally in Cornyn, who, in addition to co-sponsoring the criminal justice commission bill and Franken's bill, is co-sponsoring legislation with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to give low-risk inmates the opportunity to earn up to one quarter of their sentence in pre-release custody by taking recidivism reduction programs.  

The Whitehouse-Cornyn bill was approved by Judiciary 15-2 in the last Congress, and Cornyn was upbeat about its chances during this Congress, along with other aspects of criminal justice reform.  

“This is an area where, strangely enough, the right and the left are converging on some common ground and I think there’s a great opportunity," he said.  

Lawmakers in both parties — and increasingly, Obama — have started to key in on the huge costs of incarcerating people for decades, particularly nonviolent drug offenders.  

Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., proposed legislation that would reschedule marijuana and let states set medical marijuana policy, among other pieces, and Paul made changing pot policy a key part of his speech announcing his run for president. Booker also has proposed ideas in the past to reduce recidivism.  

Booker told CQ Roll Call the problems are compounded by poverty and a lack of economic and educational opportunities.  

"We have a criminal justice system that treats certain populations differently than others, particularly poor folks and particularly minorities," Booker said. "We’re going to see a lot of challenges in our country until we meet the urgency of dealing with this persistent injustice that doesn’t reflect our highest aspirations.”  

Peters hopes the commission’s findings will clearly identify areas to concentrate on and spark some kind of movement, or at least grease the gears in the Senate's slow grind.  

“That may build over time,” Peters said. “The important thing is that this is an issue that has risen to everybody’s attention and many are taking pieces of it.”  

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