Once a Cinch, Criminal Justice Bill Just Another Campaign Promise

As Obama's tune changes, Flake says 'it’s going to have to be' delayed

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said criminal justice overhaul legislation likely will not pass before a new president and new Congress are installed next year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said criminal justice overhaul legislation likely will not pass before a new president and new Congress are installed next year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 16, 2016 at 11:26am

An overhaul of federal criminal justice laws was once considered among the most achievable of President Barack Obama’s policy goals in his last year in office. Now, it’s been reduced to a stump-speech applause line designed to boost turnout for Hillary Clinton on Election Day.

Hopes were high into this summer that an overhaul  bill with bipartisan support could be signed into law, leading to changes in sentencing laws and related efforts to make it easier for those with criminal records to function on the outside.

Though the issue seemed ever-present on Obama’s to-do list, the outlook changed on Tuesday, when the president essentially passed it off to his successor.

“We can reform our criminal justice system, but you’ve got to vote,” Obama said at a campaign rally in Philadelphia organized by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Not just for president, but for mayors and sheriffs and state’s attorneys and state legislators. We’ve got to work with police and protesters until laws and practices are changed.”

[Criminal Justice Debate Turns to How Much Is Possible]

The issue now is one more component in the Democrats’ arsenal to boost turnout, especially among younger and urban voters.

“Hillary has got plans to make sure everybody has a shot, not just those at the top. But you’ve got to help her by voting for Democrats up and down the ticket,” Obama said. “We’ve got to get a Congress back, and we’ve got to hold everybody we elect accountable for getting the job done.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday told Roll Call that the president still has hope that Congress sends him a bill before Jan. 20.

“I think the point is that if it doesn’t get done this year, the president is hopeful that the next Congress will be one that includes more people who are supportive of those reforms,” Earnest said. “In most cases, that means electing Democrats.”

[A Final Round for Obama’s Wish List]

Senate Judiciary member Jeff Flake, an advocate for an overhaul measure, said Thursday that “it’s going to have to be” pushed off until a new president and Congress are sworn in.

The Arizona Republican pointed to a shortened legislative calendar and election-year politics as the chief culprits for the issue falling off the legislative agenda.

“Next year, it will depend on new members,” Flake said of passing a compromise bill.

Another overhaul advocate, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, replied “yes” when asked if the effort has stalled out.

[White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort]

House GOP leaders, unlike the Senate, opted to address the issue with a series of bills. Speaker Paul D. Ryan floated the idea of bringing those measures to the floor this month but hasn’t followed through as the chamber prepares for perhaps its final week in session before Election Day.

In the Senate, advocates appear to have failed to sell skeptical colleagues on a revised bill that would hand judges greater discretion in sentencing, reduce mandatory minimum sentences, and allow the lowest-risk prisoners to qualify for early release.

The legislation is expected to be crowded out by year-end spending legislation when lawmakers return for a lame duck session in November. Fights are expected on a slew of policy riders that could threaten a government shutdown.

But Nelson said there’s an outside chance the common ground among Republicans and Democrats could bring a criminal justice overhaul before Obama leaves office on Jan. 20: “Get into a lame duck session, and flowers’ blossoms may break out.”

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.