Will Criminal Justice Measures Get a Second Look Under Trump?

WASHINGTON — After Donald Trump won the White House, a surrogate asked Texas donor Doug Deason what he’d like in return for his fervid campaign support.The answer was easy for Deason, who with his father, Dallas billionaire Darwin Deason, helped raise funds for Trump’s election: He wants the Trump administration’s help in getting Congress to finally overhaul the criminal justice system.The president-elect has said little on the topic so far, but Deason is confident he'll be on board. “I do think we’ll have his support, and everyone I’ve talked to in the administration has said they believe in fair justice,” said Deason, a longtime supporter of revamping criminal justice laws.For well over a year, a bipartisan bill sponsored by prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn, has languished in the Senate, despite initially sailing through the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 15-5 vote.The legislation seeks to lower mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and give judges greater sentencing discretion. It also looks to reduce recidivism rates through programs aimed at rehabilitation in federal prisons — principles Cornyn based on Texas’ overhaul of its prison system.The legislation had supporters as high up as President Barack Obama. But it hit roadblocks in the form of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, among others, who were concerned about loosening mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and applying them retroactively. Cotton has even said America has an “under-incarceration problem.”In the fall of 2015, Cruz stunned Deason, a longtime supporter, and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a friend and Republican co-sponsor of the bill, when he left the campaign trail to lambaste the legislation during a committee hearing.“Every one of us who votes to release violent criminals from prison prior to the expiration of their sentence can fully expect to be held accountable by our constituents,” Cruz warned.The charge prompted rare rebuke from Lee, who said his legislation seeks to correct a misinterpretation of the law that’s resulted in some criminals being erroneously punished as recidivists. “We are not letting out violent offenders,” Lee said. “That is false.”Lawmakers tried to reach compromise on the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, not wanting to risk a floor fight over the legislation in an election year, never brought it to a vote.With Congress set to reconvene under Trump in January, Deason and other criminal justice overhaul supporters, including Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, hope the legislation will get a fresh look.Even if Trump has been quiet on the matter, Deason points out that Vice President-elect Mike Pence has a history of supporting fair sentencing and corrections measures. Pence even said during the vice presidential debate that “we need to adopt criminal justice reform nationally.”Pence is “going to be a very powerful vice president, like Dick Cheney was,” Deason said. “He’ll have a lot of influence over that.”Holden, who like Deason has lobbied lawmakers to revamp prisons to incarcerate less and rehabilitate more, is equally hopeful.“I remain optimistic, if for no other reason that it’s happened in so many states like Texas,” said Holden, pointing to the measures Texas enacted in 2007 to reduce prison populations with pretrial diversion programs and tackle recidivism rates with prison rehabilitation programs. Roughly two dozen other states have implemented similar measures.McConnell has left open the possibility of a vote sometime in 2017, telling reporters in a November news conference that while Republicans have “serious divisions” over the proposal, he wouldn’t “rule it out.”Cornyn, who proposed the corrections overhaul measure with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., recently indicated that the proposal could become its own bill.“I don’t think there are many serious objections to it because it’s been so successful at the state level,” he said. The sentencing measure, he noted, is the more controversial piece of legislation. “That may be left by the wayside for now.”But a spokesman for the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, a supporter of the legislation, said the sentencing and corrections measures should remain together.An aide to Lee, who is pushing for changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, agreed. But the aide also indicated Republicans may attempt to win over party colleagues by including provisions concerning “mens rea,” or a defendant’s state of mind at the time of an alleged crime.Many Republicans are in favor of laws requiring a prosecutor to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime. A version of the bill in the House has the mens rea provisions.But it’s an issue many Democrats have vowed to oppose because of concerns it would make it more difficult to prosecute corporate crimes. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has also opposed adding mens rea provisions to the bill.An aide to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noted the bipartisan opposition to criminal intent statutes and predicted the legislation, as is, will have a stronger likelihood of success with the departure of two opponents: Sessions, whom Trump tapped to become attorney general, and outgoing Louisiana Sen. David Vitter.Cruz, who has remained largely silent on the issue in the last several months, is still reviewing the legislation, according to his staff.“We think there will actually be more support the next time it comes before the Judiciary Committee and it’s still a bill that will pass with a majority of Republican support and majority Democratic support,” the Durbin aide said.Holden, the Koch attorney, was optimistic the politicos will find a way to pass the legislation, as there are elements that both Republicans and Democrats agree on, he said.While Koch would prefer to see the entire legislation passed, it will support however much Congress is willing to do, Holden said.“It will help improve people's lives,” he said. “We're hopeful we have some success, no matter how large or small it is.”  Continue reading...

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