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In political flip, Republicans unite behind prison reforms while liberal groups hold out

In meetings over the past year, criminal justice reform advocates have leaned on conservative Texas leaders to show the tough-on-crime president how much money they saved on prison reforms. Now House Republicans will try to put those ideas into legislation.
In meetings over the past year, criminal justice reform advocates have leaned on conservative Texas leaders to show the tough-on-crime president how much money they saved on prison reforms. Now House Republicans will try to put those ideas into legislation. AP

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Left-leaning civil rights groups that have vocally championed criminal justice reforms now stand as some of the effort’s last, biggest holdouts on Capitol Hill.

In an unusual realignment of political interests, all but one Republican and most of the Democrats on a House committee Wednesday joined together to approve major changes to the federal prison system.

The plan includes criminal rehabilitation and job training programs designed to reduce recidivism — ideas a majority of lawmakers from both parties support.

But a coalition of 75 civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, is urging lawmakers to continue pushing for greater changes to the sentencing system. It opposes the current plan.

“Supporters of the legislation have used the phrase ‘Something is better than nothing,’” said Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the ACLU Washington legislative office. “But it is concerning that the criteria for criminal justice reform seems to no longer be that it addresses the very real problems in the federal system.”

That dissent is frustrating some Democrats who also want bigger changes, but have worked with Republicans for months to craft a package they think President Donald Trump will sign.

The bill must still be considered by the full House and then the Senate, where further changes can be made.

Democrats' divisions already are also providing fuel for Republicans, who are much more recent advocates for criminal justice reform issues.

Among major conservative outside groups, nearly all, including the Koch network, the Texas Association of Business and FreedomWorks, have united behind Congress’ current effort, which they say will save money.

A conservative polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, has tested the issue in a handful of states where it could be an effective campaign issue in November.

The conservative nonprofit Freedom Partners, funded by the Koch brothers, is running digital ads in the districts of six Democrats on the House committee that oversaw the bill’s passage, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Hakeem Jeffries D-N.Y., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., Cedric Richmond, D-La., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

The ads highlight the Democrats' past comments in support of prison reform to push them on board with a plan that addresses just that narrower piece.

Jeffries co-sponsored the bill with GOP Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and had pushed his party to pass it intact. But committee leaders delayed that debate last month, until further changes were made to appease Democrats.

Nadler, the committee’s highest ranking Democrat, and Jackson Lee, the highest ranking Democrat on its crime subcommittee, both opposed the bill Wednesday, along with two other Democrats. One Republican, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, also opposed it.

“I am a product of the civil rights movement,” reasoned Jackson Lee, who thanked the civil rights groups for their work the bill, and vowed to press for their bigger changes when it reaches the full House vote.

Democrats have already extracted some major concessions by walking away from the bill once before.

The original package was crafted by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, based on reforms that Texas implemented more than a decade ago.

North Carolina’s new prisons chief Reuben Young told the Observer he wants stiffer criminal penalties for inmates who assault correctional officers. The proposal comes after attacks at Bertie and Pasquotank prisons killed five employees in 2017.

Cornyn, who personally supports sentencing reform, worked with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and other conservative leaders to find solutions that Trump, a proponent of tough-on-crime policies, would sign.

House Democrats rejected that plan, and the bill's authors returned with a package that included some of the Democrats' demands, such as limiting the use of restraints on pregnant prisoners and audits to reduce prison rape.

“I understand why the Democrats want more, a lot of Republicans want more,” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries who worked on the White House negotiations.

Holden said negotiators were pushed as far as they could be.

“Where we are now is a clean prison reform bill that can pass,” he told the Star-Telegram.

Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, which works with criminal justice groups on both sides of the aisle, said the liberal groups had plenty of reason to believe they could get more.

"The positioning of all the groups is strategic, and regardless of their support or opposition, most all of them are at the table pushing for their top priorities," said Harris. "The ones who lose are the ones who take their ball and go home."

Many Republicans on the committee, including Collins, have also called for changes to sentencing law.

If the bill reaches the Senate, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is demanding sentencing changes be included for it to pass through the Judiciary Committee he chairs.

“Every person who spoke [at Wednesday's committee hearing] said this needs to be expanded,” said Harris. “But time is of the essence,” because of the impact on people currently behind bars.

Lawmakers resolved another major issue Wednesday, allowing prisoners who have already logged good behavior to be released early. That change would allow the immediate release of about 4,000 prisoners, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the House Judiciary Committee's vote count. Four Democrats opposed the bill, and one Republican.

Andrea Drusch: adrusch@mcclatchydc.com, @AndreaDrusch
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