The Senate delivered President Trump a bipartisan criminal justice reform deal shortly after the last midterm elections. Staging a sequel for President Biden this year won’t be so easy, Politico reports.
Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat and Republican, are still in talks over finalizing a package that would serve as a more narrow follow-up to the 2018 prison and sentencing reform bill known as the First Step Act.
Both senators acknowledge it’s not a glide path forward, particularly given the GOP messaging on rising crime ahead of the 2022 midterms — a focus that was on display during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court hearings last month. “That’s dampened the interest in doing what we call the Second Step Act, but we’re still seeing what can be worked out,” said Grassley (R-IA). He added that if Democrats agree to certain provisions related to law enforcement, “that might make it possible to get something done.”
Durbin (D-IL) is concerned about the bill’s prospects, particularly given Republican accusations during Jackson’s confirmation hearings that the justice-in-waiting was soft on crime. The Judiciary chair ranked criminal justice as high on his list of priorities, though he said such legislation “may be just as challenging as immigration” — a famously tough area of bipartisan compromise on Capitol Hill.
While both Durbin and Grassley say the sequel legislation is necessary to expand on the sentencing updates in the First Step law, the campaign-season politics surrounding criminal justice reform threaten broader GOP support.
Though 38 Republican senators backed the 2018 bill, it took Trump’s personal appeals to get many on board. Wiith Democrats in full control of Washington, Republicans’ emerging midterm message — that liberals are to blame for rising violent crime — could make sentencing changes that much harder.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a member of the Judiciary Committee and a close adviser to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said, “Particularly given the spike in violence in the inner cities, it would probably be controversial depending on what the specific proposal was. The timing is not great given the closeness of the midterms and the primaries that still remain to be run.”
The Judiciary panel passed the foundation for Durbin and Grassley’s potential criminal justice reform package last year. It would give inmates who were sentenced prior to the First Step law’s passage the ability to petition for its reduced sentencing guidelines, applying them retroactively if approved.
Another bill would increase eligibility for a program that allows certain elderly prisoners to serve the rest of their sentences at home. There’s also discussion around expanding the scope of a federal carjacking statute.