Larry French / Getty Images for Fusion

Bipartisan group of senators set to unveil criminal justice reform

Advocates say legislation is likely to have critics but bill is a promising step forward for overhaul

WASHINGTON — After months of negotiations and mounting pressure from an unlikely coalition of liberal and conservative groups to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, a bipartisan group of senators is said to be ready to unveil a package of reforms on Thursday.

“A deal at this point seems to have been reached,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who has been closely involved in the process, said Wednesday afternoon on Capitol Hill during a panel discussion on juvenile justice. “It is good progress in the right direction and, I think, stops this trend of making things worse.” 

Although he said details were still being finalized and declined to discuss specific proposals in the package, he said that “if the bill stays how it is, it will get my full-throated support.”

The senators involved in crafting the deal include Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who was initially considered skeptical of such proposals, and outspoken criminal justice reform champions like Booker; Mike Lee, R-Utah; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. 

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the legislation would likely include provisions to allow inmates to earn reduced sentences for completing workforce and education training, permit greater judicial discretion in sentencing for crimes that have had minimum sentences mandated by federal law and address the juvenile justice system.  

During an era of partisan gridlock and bickering on nearly every issue, a rare consensus has emerged around the need to reform the nation’s $33 billion prison system, which holds approximately 2.3 million Americans. Groups as diverse as the conservative Koch Industries and the tea-party-backed FreedomWorks and the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American Progress have thrown their weight behind an overhaul, helping fund a well-publicized effort to nudge lawmakers on the issue.

President Barack Obama, too, has encouraged the efforts in Congress, speaking in favor of reform and in July becoming the first president to visit a federal prison.

Van Jones, a co-founder of #cut50, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce the prison population by half over the next 10 years, said that the legislation would probably be far from perfect but that it was cause for celebration that there could be a bipartisan bill to discuss at all. 

“I am sure that there will be stuff in the bill for everybody to like and for everybody to dislike, and that’s the point — you actually now have concrete legislation to discuss and to debate,” he said. “You gotta congratulate a town this broken that could not pass a bill saying ‘Kittens are cute’ for finally being able to get actual legislation on the table.”

Mark Holden, a general counsel and senior vice president for Koch Industries, said he was supportive of what he had heard about the package thus far. “We have to fix what we’re talking about with a two-tier system — where if you’re wealthy or if you’re poor, you have two vastly criminal justice systems,” he said. “At the end of the day, this would make such a great impact and benefit the poorest among us.”

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