Criminal Justice Overhaul Efforts Appear Stuck

House and Senate Judiciary panels have taken different approaches

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries says he expects criminal justice legislation to hit the House floor in the next few weeks with bipartisan support. But the Senate appears to have decided on a different course. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House action on a criminal justice overhaul bill this week appears to have done little to change the political dynamic in the Senate that makes it unlikely Congress will act on the issue this year.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced legislation on Wednesday that aims to prepare federal prisoners for release so they are less likely to commit another crime. A co-author of the bill, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, said in an interview Thursday he expected the measure would hit the House floor “in the next few weeks, and we’ll have strong bipartisan support.”

“If we can get a meaningful bill that will dramatically improve the lives of currently incarcerated individuals over to the Senate, it would seem to me that they’d be hard pressed not to move it forward,” the New York Democrat said.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee already decided on a different course this year, rejecting a prison-only approach and advancing a broader, bipartisan criminal justice overhaul bill that also includes changes to federal sentencing laws.

Chairman Charles E. Grassley and other members of the Senate panel did so even knowing that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not plan on scheduling the measure for floor debate. That’s because the sentencing portion is opposed by some Senate Republicans and law enforcement groups, and President Donald Trump only supports the prison portion of the bill.

On Thursday, Grassley didn’t use any words to express whether the House committee action changed anything in the Senate.

The Iowa Republican simply shook his head “no” to a series of questions from Roll Call: Had the House bill changed his strategy of backing a broader bipartisan bill that includes sentencing overhaul? Would he want McConnell to bring the House bill to the floor so the Senate backers could add their sentencing provisions to it? Does he want the House bill to move at all?

Without Grassley on board, McConnell is unlikely to bring any House prison legislation to the floor.

Lawmakers from both political parties want to make “smart-on-crime” changes to the nation’s criminal justice system, as do an ideologically varied coalition of interest groups. But the effort has stalled for several years.

Jeffries said the next step is to pass “a strong bill that will begin the process of unraveling the prison industrial process in America, then we’ll pass the baton to them.”

House lawmakers have been speaking with the Justice Department about the bill, Jeffries said, and also have been negotiating with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who is “authentically committed to getting a meaningful prison reform bill done this year.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas introduced a revised measure along with Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse as companion legislation to the House sentencing bill.

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