Obama Calls for Congressional Action on Criminal Justice Bill

Says more investment in opioid treatment will save money and lives

Sen. Michael S. Lee, R-Utah, speaks with Weldon Angelos last June. Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling marijuana under mandatory minimum prison guidelines, but was released early. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Barack Obama said Congress could adopt measures to change sentencing laws, control guns and curb the opioid epidemic to continue an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system.

“There is so much work to be done,” Obama wrote in a Harvard Law Review article released Thursday by the White House. “Yet I remain hopeful that together, we are moving in the right direction.”

Obama spends much of the article discussing the steps his administration took to make the criminal justice system “smarter, fairer, and more effective at keeping our communities safe.” Obama also laid out how the president can drive significant changes, pointing to his work with Congress to change the disparity in prison sentences between crack and powder cocaine in 2009.

Obama said it would “be a good start” if Congress passed a criminal justice overhaul bill that stalled in the Senate last year. The measure had bipartisan support but vocal detractors among Senate Republicans. It advanced from the Senate Judiciary Committee but never got a vote on the Senate floor.

['Sentencing Reform' Is Seriously Stuck]

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has said he will introduce the bill again in the new Congress. But it likely will need policy changes to gain support from House Republicans that risk losing the support of Senate Democrats.

The legislation aims to change sentencing laws and improve the way the system rehabilitates prisoners so they don’t become repeat offenders. Major provisions would give federal judges more discretion in sentencing, reduce some of the mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug crimes and allow low-risk prisoners to qualify for earlier release.

“The bill would represent a historic step forward and demonstrate continued bipartisan commitment on this issue, affecting thousands of current inmates and making the system fairer well into the future,” Obama wrote. “We have seen these reforms work in so many states across the country, and each state that pushes forward with positive results makes it easier for others to follow.”

On firearm laws, Obama said there are steps Congress can take to reduce gun violence that are consistent with the Second Amendment’s gun rights.

“Congress should pass the kinds of commonsense reforms supported by most of the American people — from investing in access to mental health care, to expanding background checks, to making it possible to keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists,” Obama wrote. “The actions we take won’t prevent every act of violence — but if even one life is spared, they will have been well worth it.”

Congress voted on several of those issues in 2016 after Democrats staged sit-ins on the House floor and a talking filibuster in the Senate. But Congress failed to bridge a deep partisan divide on the issues. Procedural votes doomed Senate efforts while the House never voted on gun legislation.

Obama also wrote that investment in opioid addiction treatment programs would save money and lives, “all at a fraction of the cost of building new prisons.” He mentioned the $1 billion in new funding for in a package of biomedical innovation bills known as 21st Century Cures, signed into law in December.

“Now the crucial next step is putting those resources to work so that every American who wants treatment can get it and start on the road to recovery,” Obama wrote.

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