‘The push starts now’: Prison reform finally has a shot in Congress

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A yearslong slog to undo pieces of the federal government’s machinery of mass incarceration has turned into a sprint.

After President Donald Trump announced this month that the White House would push for a landmark ─ and bipartisan ─ proposal to revamp the U.S. prison system, reform advocates last week began aggressively lobbying Congress to act. But they don’t have much time: Similar efforts have previously died in the mire of election-year politics, and the Nov. 6 midterms are approaching.

“The push starts now,” said Holly Harris, a longtime Republican strategist who leads the U.S. Justice Action Network, which recruits lawmakers on the left and right to overhaul the criminal justice system.

The trick is deciding how far to push.

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The Republican-controlled House has already passed a bill that offers federal inmates more opportunities to prepare for freedom and rewards them with more “good-time credit” for behaving and participating in education and training programs. The measure, called the First Step Act, would provide a faster path to release for almost all federal inmates, many of whom would see months shaved off their release dates immediately, thanks to changes that would apply retroactively.

But the Senate is a tougher sell. A pair of senators ─ Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a Republican, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat ─ have been fighting for years for a more sweeping set of changes that, rather than focusing on people already in prison, would target the source of mass incarceration by reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders. A third of the Senate’s membership have signed on as co-sponsors. Adding sentencing reform to the First Step Act would be an “important BIPARTISAN win,” Grassley tweeted Thursday.

Some Republicans, though, strongly oppose the more expansive bill. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas described the Grassley-Durbin bill as “a jailbreak that would endanger communities” in an Aug. 16 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has warned the White House that the First Step Act would make America less safe, undermine law enforcement and cripple the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. That has raised fears of an intraparty squabble as the GOP seeks to maintain its majority control.

With a potential battle looming, Trump’s support is seen as key, said Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries and chairman of the Koch-backed Freedom Partners, which makes conservative arguments for criminal justice reform.

“He’s sending a message to the Republican Party to get this done,” Holden said.

Following the lead of the states

The proposals before Congress are part of a broadening effort to dismantle America’s overwhelming reliance on prison sentences.

That toughened approach, a product of the war on drugs and now three decades old, contributed to a drastic drop in crime rates, but at a steep cost. It deepened racial disparities in the justice system, fueled anti-police grievances and prevented millions of former offenders from holding steady jobs, maintaining stable housing and providing for their families, according to researchers. It also consumed massive portions of government budgets: State and local spending on corrections jumped from $17 billion to $71 billion from 1980 to 2013, according to a federal analysis, and federal spending during that period rose from $970 million to $6.7 billion, according to a Pew study.

As America awakened to those consequences, reformers pushed to undo the laws that caused them. Those efforts have caught on in the states, both blue and red. Over the past decade, many have reduced their prison populations while also curbing crime, touting those results as a path toward wider change.