The Daily 202: Why criminal justice reform may actually get done this year—if these two hurdles can be overcome

May 9.

THE BIG IDEA, by White House Bureau Chief Juliet Eilperin: 

For a while, it looked like criminal justice reform would be the great white whale of this Congress: that elusive triumph that was just out of reach for the Democrats and Republicans who believed it was finally within their grasp. As lawmakers return to town this week, though, there are signs it could happen this Congress—though it remains an uphill battle.

— The compromise that saved the Senate bill: Late last month, the bipartisan coalition in the Senate that has been pushing this initiative—including Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, ranking member Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)—introduced a revised bill with 37 cosponsors. It explicitly excludes anyone convicted of a “serious violent felony” from being eligible for early release. That compromise helped win the backing of GOP Sens. Steve Daines (Mont.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Dan Sullivan (Alaska), plus the National District Attorneys Association. The new bill also reduces minimum penalties for low-level, non-violent offenders and allows judges to exercise greater discretion when sentencing low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

— Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee is planning to press ahead later this month. In addition to eight measures that have already passed, the panel is slated to mark up bills related to juvenile justice, civil asset forfeiture, as well as criminal procedures and policing strategies. “I think we can get there,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said in an interview. When it comes to the whole package, cobbling together all of the parts, he added: “It is our hope that we can bring it to the floor soon. But I can’t say when, because I don’t know when.”

— The window of opportunity to pass the bill is narrow. The closer the election gets, the harder it becomes to pass big-ticket legislation. Reform advocates hope the House can pass its bill in June, to provide enough time for the Senate to act and reconcile its proposal with that of the lower chamber. Since the Senate Judiciary Committee has already passed a criminal justice bill, lawmakers can substitute their revised measure as an amendment on the floor. That, though, depends on Mitch McConnell deciding to bring the bill up for consideration.

— The two biggest hurdles right now: McConnell and mens rea

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