For Sentencing Reform Bill To Pass, Cornyn Must Convince GOP Colleagues


U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), a former judge and attorney general, is a devoted believer in the pending federal sentencing overhaul bill. Now, reports the New York Times, he just has to convert doubting Republican colleagues. Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican and a main author of the legislation, which would cut some sentences and ease re-entry after prison, is working to address fears from fellow Republicans that passage of the bill could set loose some dangerous offenders and diminish the party's law-and-order image. Acknowledging the deep skepticism, Cornyn said his job was to educate Republicans who were only beginning to focus on the legislation and to make clear that it would not throw open the gates of federal prisons. “Nobody is getting out of jail free, which is some of the characterization that is out there,” said Cornyn, who describes himself “as conservative as they come.”

For months, momentum has been building for a package aimed at easing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. The effort has been driven by an unusual right-left alliance that includes the conservatives Charles and David Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been cautious on the issue, and other Republicans have expressed increasingly vocal opposition, with the latest resistance coming from Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR). Opposition to the legislation boiled up at a closed party lunch last week. McConnell reminded senators of the case of Willie Horton, the Massachusetts felon who committed violent crimes while on furlough and became an issue in the 1988 presidential race. “I don't believe we should allow thousands of violent felons to be released early from prison, nor do I believe we should reduce sentences for violent offenders in the future,” Cotton said. He said that the criminal justice legislation was being driven by a “myth” of mass incarceration of low-level, nonviolent offenders in federal prisons, and that most prisoners had already cut their sentences under plea bargains.

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