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McConnell OKs to Criminal Justice Vote 12/12 06:23

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Under pressure from President Donald Trump and many of 
his Republican colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday 
that he will bring legislation to the floor to overhaul the nation's federal 
sentencing laws.

   McConnell's decision comes after more than three years of overtures from a 
large, bipartisan group of senators who support the criminal justice bill. 
Trump announced his support for the legislation last month, but McConnell 
treaded cautiously as a handful of members in his caucus voiced concerns that 
it would be too soft on violent criminals.

   Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican, said Trump's push for the 
legislation was "critical to the outcome."

   "Sen. McConnell was always concerned about the small window of time that we 
have to do all these things we need to do, but the president was insistent that 
this be included," he said.

   If the legislation passes, it would be a major bipartisan policy achievement 
for this Congress and the largest sentencing overhaul in decades. AshLee 
Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said, "The House stands 
ready to act on the revised Senate criminal justice reform bill." Ryan has long 
supported sentencing reform and is retiring at the end of the session.

   Most Senate Democrats support the bill, which would revise 1980s and 
'90s-era "tough on crime" laws to boost rehabilitation efforts for federal 
prisoners and give judges more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders. 
It would attempt to focus the toughest sentences on the most violent offenders, 
lowering mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses and 
reducing the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or 
"three strikes," to 25 years.

   Supporters say the changes would make the nation's criminal justice system 
fairer, reduce overcrowding in federal prisons and save taxpayer dollars. The 
bill would affect only federal prisoners, who make up roughly 10 percent of the 
country's prison population. Several states have passed similar laws that apply 
to state prisons.

   "It is an opportunity to correct manifest injustices in the system," said 
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who signed on to the legislation last week after 
supporters agreed to make tweaks to guard against violent criminals being 
released early. "There are far too many young black men who find themselves 
incarcerated for years or even decades based on nonviolent drug offenses."

   Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another supporter, said he thinks the 
legislation became "a more consensus product" after Cruz's tweaks were accepted 
and he announced his support.

   "We're going to have a lot of people on board," Paul said. "And it's the 
right thing to do."

   Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a leading proponent of the bill, 
said if the legislation is passed, it will have "a profound effect on thousands 
of families who have been suffering as a result of this broken system." He said 
many of the bill's beneficiaries would be African-American.

   Booker said the bill isn't "all the way there" in terms of the sentencing 
reforms that he and other Democrats would have liked, but it would "take a step 
in the right direction and correct the ills of the last 25, 30 years."

   The bill has been a priority for Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has 
worked behind the scenes with supportive Republican senators over the last two 
years and pushed Trump to support it. It was also a top issue for former 
President Barack Obama, who had hoped to see the bill become law before he left 
office.

   Supporters have long said that the bill would pass if McConnell would just 
put it on the floor. But McConnell hesitated as some vocal members of his 
caucus said the bill would allow the release of violent felons --- a charge 
that GOP supporters denied.

   McConnell said he was moving the bill as soon as this week "at the request 
of the president" and following improvements to the legislation.

   The Senate's most vocal opponent, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, 
said the revised legislation "still has major problems and allows early release 
for many categories of serious, violent criminals." Cotton said he will 
introduce amendments to the legislation on the floor, suggesting he could delay 
its passage as senators try to wrap up before Christmas.

   Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, the legislation's lead 
sponsor, has not yet released the text of the legislation. Louisiana Sen. John 
Kennedy, a Republican who has also been skeptical of the bill, said he was 
waiting to see it because he wants to "try to figure out how many people they 
are going to let go."

   While senators have been pressuring McConnell to take up the bill for years, 
the pressure ramped up in recent weeks as the session neared an end and 
supporters worried that Democrats taking the House majority in January would 
want to rewrite the bill. Kushner spoke with senators regularly --- daily, in 
some cases --- and appeared on Fox News Channel's "Hannity" on Monday night, 
urging McConnell to take it up.

   Trump said Tuesday that the bill has "great" support and was "going to be 
passing, hopefully."

   "Thanks to Leader McConnell for agreeing to bring a Senate vote on Criminal 
Justice this week!" Trump tweeted. "These historic changes will make 
communities SAFER and SAVE tremendous taxpayers dollars. It brings much needed 
hope to many families during the Holiday Season."

   Supporters who have been pushing the bill for years --- including many law 
enforcement organizations, liberal advocacy groups and major GOP donors --- 
praised McConnell's announcement.

   The American Civil Liberties Union encouraged senators to vote for the 
legislation, saying it "makes modest but important improvements to our criminal 
justice system."

   Holly Harris, executive director of the advocacy group Justice Action 
Network, said McConnell's decision is "an incredibly groundbreaking moment" and 
emotional for the broad coalition that has been working on it for so long.

   "I never doubted the leader would be on the right side of history on this 
bill," Harris said.


(KA)

 
 
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