Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are racing to pass a prison initiative this spring that is similar to those pioneered in Southern states over the past decade. But unlike Georgia, in which a bipartisan group of legislators emphatically backed pieces of a broader overhaul championed by Gov. Nathan Deal, deep-seated mistrust between and among the two major political parties threatens to stall the narrower federal effort.
The legislation in question, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, is designed to tackle recidivism rates, or the number of former inmates who quickly reoffend and end up back in jails. It seeks to help outgoing federal prisoners re-enter society by serving the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement if they complete programs such as vocational training, mental health or substance abuse counseling while behind bars.
One of the driving forces behind the current effort is U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. The onetime pastor is seeking to win over conservative colleagues who have long been wary of fiddling with the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and ’90s, telling them that offering training and rehabilitative programs to outgoing prisoners is a cause of “money and morals.”
“Conservatives don’t believe big government is the answer,” Collins said in a recent interview. “Conservatives do believe that targeted solutions are the answer, and this is the perfect opportunity to show that conservatives believe in hope and human dignity.”
Collins has partnered with U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a liberal Democrat from New York City, and Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, to bolster the effort. But the group has recently run into several speed bumps, even as a key House committee gears up to advance the measure Wednesday.
Perhaps the most formidable hurdle has come from a bipartisan group of Senate Judiciary Committee members. They want a far broader overhaul of the country’s criminal justice statutes, including eliminating mandatory minimums for some low-level drug offenders.
“We should be doing sentencing reform and prison reform,” said U.S. Sen Cory Booker, D-N.J. “We should not be separating (them).”
Congress’ bickering comes in stark contrast to Georgia, where Deal and the Legislature have recently poured considerable resources into rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing the state’s recidivism rates, as well as broader efforts to keep younger drug offenders out of juvenile lockups.
Deal signed legislation in 2014 requiring the state Department of Corrections to create a treatment program for released offenders struggling with their transition back into society. He also advanced an executive order outlawing state employers from asking about a person’s criminal history on initial job applications.
The state recently kicked off a pilot program at a halfway house in Clayton County that gives inmates training in trades such as construction and help finding jobs, while other prisons in the state offer certification programs in areas such as welding, diesel mechanics and cosmetology. The state also helps inmates in transitional centers acquire important documents such as Social Security cards or IDs, and it offers classes in budgeting so they can manage their finances once they are released.
On Capitol Hill, criminal justice has become a notable area of bipartisan cooperation at a time when most legislating has been frozen by partisan discord. But even that hasn’t been enough to overcome differences within the parties.
An effort to end mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug offenders appeared to be on the fast track in 2015 after the concept was endorsed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, President Barack Obama and an unorthodox coalition of interests including the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative network financed by the Koch brothers.
But the effort died a slow and quiet death a year later after a pocket of conservative Senate Republicans, including current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then-presidential hopeful Ted Cruz and Georgia’s David Perdue, rejected it, saying it was too lenient and would lead to violent criminals ending up on the streets.
Debate has since simmered about how to approach the issue with Sessions, who holds hard-line views on many aspects of criminal justice.
Grassley, a key Trump ally with significant clout at the White House, pushed the same sentencing bill through his committee in February over Sessions’ objections, but it’s unlikely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring up that broader measure for a vote on the floor without Trump and Sessions’ support.
Trump, meanwhile, has endorsed Collins’ narrower effort due in no small part to the involvement of Kushner, whose own father served time in prison for tax evasion and other crimes. In his State of the Union address this year, the president endorsed “reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”
House leaders, meanwhile, have given their implicit endorsement of Collins’ bill by allowing it to move through the House Judiciary Committee this week. The measure has also won the backing of libertarian groups such as FreedomWorks.
But the effort still faces criticism in the House from some progressives who are highly suspicious of Sessions. Some say Democrats could get a better deal next year should they win control of the House or lessen the GOP’s majority.
More than 60 progressive and civil rights groups organizations, including the ACLU and the NAACP, recently penned letters to lawmakers arguing that prison reform alone isn’t worthwhile without sentencing changes that cut down on jail populations in the first place. Some also object to the categories of crimes that would make certain prisoners ineligible for the anti-recidivism programs under the legislation.
“Only front-end reforms have the power to significantly stem the tide of incarceration, reduce the exorbitant cost of the prison system, and give redress to those inside who are serving sentences that are disproportionate to the severity of the offense. Any approach that does not include sentencing reform will be insufficient to meet the challenges we face,” the organizations wrote to Senate leaders last month.
Collins, who is running to lead the House Judiciary Committee next year, unveiled some last-minute tweaks to the bill this week aimed at winning over those skeptics. He said he’s supportive of rethinking some sentencing laws, too, but he said proponents of a broad criminal justice overhaul should take a more pragmatic approach given the politics of the moment.
“We’re working on something we can get votes on,” he said. This “is a first step into getting people to understand the idea that we can make adjustments here and not lose your credibility from a conservative or liberal perspective.”
Staff writers Rhonda Cook and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.