WASHINGTON – The debate over criminal justice reform is heating up in Washington as the president and lawmakers promote dueling approaches to the issue.
The White House outlined their goals for criminal justice reform on Tuesday, focusing on work training, re-entry programs and overall rehabilitation for inmates. But lawmakers, led by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Mike Lee’s, R-Utah are emphasizing mandatory minimums and sentencing reform in the reform bill currently working its way through the Senate.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle say the plan put forward by the Trump administration does not go far enough in addressing mass incarceration in the United States.
“This is best understood as a human problem, and we have to examine not just the financial costs … but the human costs,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, at an event sponsored by The Atlantic on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Lee along with the rest of the Senate Judiciary committee passed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan effort to reform federal sentencing rules and the federal prison system. The bill would give judges more discretion in imposing punishments and the ability to sentence a limited number of offenders below the mandatory minimum.
In a recent letter to Grassley, the committee chairman, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said sentencing reform “risks putting the very worst criminals back into our communities.” During the 2016 election cycle, President Donald Trump said the government must get “tough on crime” in order to deal with violence in major U.S. cities.
Still, Lee said he believes the majority of Americans support the provisions in the reform bill. A recent Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted for the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan group pushing for changes to the criminal justice system, found that 87 percent of voters support giving judges more power in replacing mandatory minimum sentences.
Bills that would reform sentencing are among several criminal justice reform bills being introduced in the Senate. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in July. The bill hopes to improve the treatment of women in federal prisons. Its provisions would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to consider the location of children when placing mothers in the system, expand visitation services, ban prisons from charging for health products like tampons and pads and prohibit the shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant women. The bill has not been passed and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Booker says it already driving change. Just three weeks after the bill’s introduction, the Federal Bureau of Prisons started providing free tampons and pads to inmates. States have started passing their own reforms modeled after the Dignity Act that would reform state prisons, where the majority of the U.S. prison population is held. This month, the Arizona state legislature considered a bill that would provide incarcerated women with an unlimited supply of feminine hygiene products.
“To write a piece of legislation that is now being picked up in state legislatures …goes to show this is a much larger movement,” said Booker.
When it comes to convincing the president to support these types of reforms in Washington, both Lee and Booker pointed to White House senior advisor Jared Kushner as a potential ally.
Booker mentioned that Kushner’s father spent 14 months in prison; Trump’s son-in-law has added prison reform to his policy portfolio. (The elder Kushner was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions.)
“This is a family issue, and I know that there is a sincere intention there to make change,” Booker said. “But I still do not believe that we are going to make the kind of massive change we need unless pressure is applied.”