Senate Republicans eye criminal justice reform

WASHINGTON  (Gray DC) -- “Making America safe again” was one of President Donald Trump’s core campaign promises.
Meanwhile, some Republican senators are pushing to reduce mandatory prison time, and make it harder for prosecutors to prove federal crimes.

Marc Howard, a Georgetown University professor, said, “We have a crisis in the country of mass incarceration.”

More than two million Americans are locked up, and that means the U.S. leads the world in people behind bars.

John Malcolm, from the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, “There is a fair amount of common ground that something needs to be done to reform the criminal justice system.”

While federal prisons house only about 10 percent of inmates, the total number has steadily increased in the last three decades.

From about 24,400 in 1980, up to 188,736 now. Almost half of those inmates are in for drug crimes.

Howard said, “We have people who have been sentenced, especially under three strikes laws and repeat offender laws, who are spending their lives in prison without the possibility of parole, for simple possession of drugs.”

Howard is a criminal justice reform advocate, and he supports a bill Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) are once again pushing.

The bill would ease federal mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders.

Howard said, “It’s something that could help re-signal a re-shifting of priorities in this country, moving away from punishment and moving away from incarceration particularly for non-violent drug crimes.”

While scaling back the hardline approach to punishing some drug crimes, the bill would stiffen penalties for people trafficking fentanyl laced heroin, and other violent criminals.

This bill has picked up support from both sides of the aisle, including from the American Conservative Union, and from John Malcolm at the Heritage Foundation.

Malcolm said, “I’m cautiously optimistic that something will come out of it, but I’m not sure what will come out at the end of the day.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions stands as the biggest potential opponent.
In a June Washington Post op-ed, Sessions argued drug trafficking is “inherently violent”, and that just three percent of federal convictions in 2016 were for simple drug possession.

However, Malcolm says savings from reducing federal prison crowding could be reinvested.

He said, “… toward more prosecutors, more police officers, more victims’ services may actually be more efficient and enhance public safety.”

Another group of Republican senators is pushing a bill that would force prosecutors to prove people knew they were breaking the law while committing a federal crime. That bill is called the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017, and is led by Sens. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Lee is also co-sponsoring the Grassley-Durbin bill.

The big question legislators and advocates have, where does President Trump stand on these reform efforts?

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