No jailbreak legislation this year

The bipartisan jailbreak legislation — known as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — is dead in this session of Congress. Sens. Dick Durbin and John Cornyn, key backers of the Act, have basically conceded defeat.

Cornyn said he had hoped the House would move more quickly and provide momentum for the legislation in the Senate. But, he added, “apparently we ran out of time.”

In reality, the demise of the Act had less to do with time than with inability to persuade enough Republican Senators to support softer sentences for, and the mass release of, federal drug felons. The increases in violent crime and heroin overdose deaths deprived backers of the momentum they had last year.

But the biggest factor in to halting that momentum was the efforts of a few Republican Senators who refused to be swept along after Cornyn, Charles Grassley, Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, and others pushed the Act through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The two leaders of this effort were Sens. Jeff Sessions and Tom Cotton. Bill Otis lists four additional Senate heroes: Orrin Hatch, David Vitter, Ted Cruz, and David Perdue.

He also recognizes the Senate staff members whose work proved invaluable in the fight against the Act. I can attest to their diligence and the quality of their work.

I think Majority Leader McConnell deserves credit too. Both his whip (Cornyn) and the Judiciary Committee chairman (Grassley) wanted this legislation. But McConnell did not defer to them. He let the issue play out within his caucus until it became clear that there was no consensus for allowing the legislation to proceed. I suspect (but do not know) that McConnell, who has been around long enough to remember clearly what life was like before mandatory minimum sentences were adopted, understands that reducing them is a bad idea, both substantively and politically.

It remains to be seen whether McConnell will still be the Majority Leader next year. If he isn’t, we should probably expect new jail break legislation — very possibly even worse than the current version — to pass in the Senate. And since Speaker Paul Ryan favors softer sentencing, there’s a good chance the House will also pass such legislation even if the GOP holds its majority.

However, if violent crime continues to rise and the heroin epidemic isn’t stemmed, one hopes that Republican legislators will be less inclined than they have been to give political cover to Democrats on this issue. If there’s going to be a jail break (on top of the one President Obama has already effectuated), let the Democrats pay the political price.


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