Conservatives Still Blocking Justice Reform in Senate

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Criminal justice reform advocates are escalating a push to shake loose a bipartisan prisons bill backed by President Trump that’s been stalled in the Senate, despite few signs that a long-running GOP rift on the issue has healed, Politico reports. Trump has stepped up calls for a deal on the prisons overhaul that has passed the House, holding two events this month. Advocacy groups say they’re closing in on a path to pass the legislation through the Senate by adding some of the sentencing changes Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) spent years negotiating with Democrats. Interviews with a dozen GOP senators show that those talks remain in a precarious state. A handful of Republicans who have long protested reducing mandatory-minimum sentences leave Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) without any incentive to call up legislation that would split his conference. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said, “I’m not sure that we can put together a deal. I’m not sure we should.”

Such resistance hasn’t stopped groups on the right and left, including conservative stalwarts Koch Industries and FreedomWorks. Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner is engaged in the effort to craft an agreement that can pass the Senate, holding his latest strategy meeting with advocates this week. Grassley’s bipartisan package of sentencing and prison reforms boasts 15 Republican cosponsors, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes even the House’s narrower prisons-only approach. Another conservative, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), called for fixes to the House bill while blasting the emerging framework for a Senate deal. Cotton’s strike against “jailbreak” sentencing reforms frustrated criminal justice advocates. “With all due respect to Sen. Cotton, there’s no real data that mandatory minimums make us safe and reduce crime,” said Mark Holden of Koch Industries. “In fact, I think the opposite is true.”

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