The U.S. Senate was prepared Monday afternoon to take up a sweeping, bipartisan bill aimed at improving the criminal justice system. The legislation has stalled for years because of opposition from some GOP senators — including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But a core bipartisan group of supporters kept at it and solidified a broad enough coalition to get the bill on the floor, beginning with a test vote Monday night.
The legislation aims to curb the nation’s high recidivism rate by providing prisoners with educational opportunities, counseling and drug rehabilitation. But in order to win over more Republican support, the group scrapped a plan to end mandatory minimum prison sentences.
A leading sponsor, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, said he wishes the measure went further — but he said it’s still significant.
“It’s going to make a real difference for families and individuals all across this country. Low income people, it’s going to help. Disproportionately, the most marginalized who don’t get a fair shot in this criminal justice system,” Booker said.
But some Democrats are questioning why the party would rally to pass the legislation now instead of waiting until they take control of the House in January.
U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, a North Jersey Democrat, said he understands the calls to hold off.
“That makes a bit of sense. I mean, we’ll be able to craft it more to our liking in the majority,” he said.
As the bill was negotiated, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, Payne said. So, over time, Democrats has given concessions that they may not have to give away in the new year.
“That flips in January – we’re the majority, so the compromise will have to come from the other side,” Payne said.
Taking ‘step in the right direction’
But Booker said now is the time to act.
Having seen the effort derailed before, he said if Democrats wait until next year, it may never see the light of day. And he said the legislation will help slow the mass incarceration epidemic that’s plaguing communities including Philadelphia and his hometown of Newark.
“As a guy – as the only senator who lives in a black and brown inner city — this is going to disproportionately affect those communities that have been churned into a system that lacked heart and has lacked judgment and proportionality,” he said. “And it’s going to give more of that back through the system.”
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat, said he understands the urge by some in his party to wait — but he warned that could backfire because the incoming Senate will include more Republicans.
“That is tempting but also dangerous,” he said.
Still, Boyle said he was reviewing the latest draft of the legislation that only just came out in the Senate. He said he’s going over it with a fine-toothed comb.
“If there’s ever an issue where the devil’s in the details, it is criminal justice ‘so-called’ reform. One person’s definition of reform is very different than another’s,” Boyle said.
Booker, who has been working on the effort for five years, was trying to corral Democrats to get on board.
“This is historic. It’s the first time in generations that, instead of going in the wrong direction on criminal justice bills, we actually have stopped, turned around and taken a step in the right direction,” Booker said.
Booker, who is exploring a presidential bid in 2020, has been showing up in early primary and caucus states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. And a key part of his national prominence has been his work on criminal justice issues, so the bill is extra important to him. Just getting the bill on the Senate floor is a major accomplishment, but he’s now working feverishly to get it passed with just two weeks left in this Congress.
“I’m going to keep fighting until we get it across the goal line before I celebrate, but this is obviously very hopeful,” Booker said.