Despite Bipartisan Effort, Window To Pass Sentencing Reform May Be Closing Some who have been advocating to reduce prison terms for nonviolent drug criminals privately tell NPR they are beginning to worry nothing will happen in 2016.
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Despite Bipartisan Effort, Window To Pass Sentencing Reform May Be Closing

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Despite Bipartisan Effort, Window To Pass Sentencing Reform May Be Closing

Despite Bipartisan Effort, Window To Pass Sentencing Reform May Be Closing

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/461607863/461627757" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Before he left for the holidays, President Obama singled out an issue he considers ripe for compromise next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I still want to work with Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, to reform our criminal justice system.

CORNISH: Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has been sounding hopeful too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: I do believe that there is things where we can find common ground on; criminal justice reform is a good example.

CORNISH: But NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the window for action may be closing.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In a season where Democrats and Republicans can't find much agreement, the best chance for bipartisan action in 2016 may be a plan to reduce prison terms for nonviolent drug criminals. But over the past two months, a number of snags have emerged that could derail that idea from timing to substance. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill last October by a vote of 15 to 5. But the legislation still requires a vote by the full Senate. Republican Mitch McConnell is majority leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: I haven't announced whether we're going to give it floor time or not, but it obviously enjoys pretty strong bipartisan support. And it's a good candidate for being dealt with next year.

JOHNSON: There's only a few months to make that happen before lawmakers begin a series of breaks and before the presidential campaign intensifies. Mark Holden is the top lawyer at Koch Industries - among the people pushing for changes to the justice system.

MARK HOLDEN: Hopefully, they'll get it on the floor early in the year because when we get into a - particularly a presidential election year, a lot of other things can come in to distract Congress, it seems.

JOHNSON: Holden says he's optimistic about the outlook, but others who've been advocated to relax the drug laws privately tell NPR they're beginning to worry nothing will happen next year. One reason - public perceptions of crime following a spike in homicides in many cities in 2015. Even though the Brennan Center for Justice recently found crime remains near record lows. In recent testimony to Congress, FBI Director James Comey advised caution after that increase in murders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMEY: This is worrisome and it drives us to need even more thoughtful about how we change our criminal justice system.

JOHNSON: In the House of Representatives, the visibility for sentencing legislation is cloudy. The House Judiciary Committee passed a series of reform bills last month. One contains language that would raise the burden of proof for prosecutors in many environmental and business crimes. The Fraternal Order of Police opposes that approach - and so do the White House and the Justice Department. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates.

SALLY YATES: If this proposal were to pass, it would provide cover for top-level executives, which is, again, not something that we think is in the interest of the American people.

JOHNSON: It's not clear whether Republican proponents in the House, like Virginia's Bob Goodlatte and Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner, will table that idea for now and let other bills move ahead. A spokeswoman for Goodlatte says it's, quote, "imperative that Congress rein in the explosion of federal criminal law." And that includes raising the burden of proof for prosecutors in some cases. For people like Mark Holden at Koch, there's no good reason not to reconsider the old tough-on-crime drug laws. He says states including Georgia and Texas have already tweaked their justice systems.

HOLDEN: And what we've seen is, in those states, that public safety continues to be enhanced, crime rates continue to go down, incarceration rates fall - meaning fewer people are in prison - and states are saving a lot of money.

JOHNSON: At the Justice Department, a senior official says leaders are committed to doing what they can to make sure a sentencing overhaul passes next year. But some people who've been campaigning for years to limit mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes say the bills in Congress already represent too much compromise, and the legislation doesn't go far enough. They say it's worth holding out for a bill that helps more people, even if it doesn't happen in 2016. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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