Blog Post

Obama Raises Criminal Justice Reform Stakes in State of the Union

Michael Collins

It was the big “will he or won’t he” question on the minds of criminal justice reformers last night. Would Obama mention criminal justice reform in his final State of the Union?

He had spoken about it before in various settings but amidst the attention on ISIS, Iran, climate change, and many other topics, would our issue make the cut?

Turns out we needn’t have worried.

Obama didn’t give a traditional SOTU with a laundry list of items he wants Congress to pass. But strikingly, in his opening sentences, Obama said, “I hope we can work together on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform.” With these words, Obama gave the prospects of criminal justice reform a boost on one of the biggest stages possible.

The legislation that the President had on his mind was likely the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This bill, the result of a bipartisan compromise among many Senators - notably Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and John Cornyn (R-TX) - would represent a huge step in the right direction by reducing mandatory minimums for drug offenses, making many of these reductions retroactive, providing for additional compassionate release and programming to prevent recidivism.

Groups like the Drug Policy Alliance have been hard at work to make sure the bill reaches the President’s desk. In October last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 15-5 to advance the bill. Since then, the bill has added many cosponsors, including Republicans such as Senator Burr (R-NC), Roberts (R-KS), and Blunt (R-MO). All eyes are now on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as advocates now push for a full Senate floor vote on this important bill.

On the House side, where things have been traditionally more chaotic, there is also much movement. House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has worked with his Democratic colleagues John Conyers (D-MI) and Sheila Jackson Lee (R-TX) to move criminal justice reform legislation.

Unlike the Senate, the House is moving legislation in a piecemeal fashion, moving sentencing reform and prison reform separately whereas the Senate combined both. Accordingly, the House Judiciary Committee moved a bill in November that replicates the sentencing provisions of the Senate bill. The vote on this bill was even better than the Senate’s Committee vote – it passed unanimously.

Take a moment to contemplate that – a bill that reduces sentences for drug offenders was approved by every member, Republican and Democrat, on the House Judiciary Committee. Such a vote hugely increases the prospects of a bill reaching the President’s desk.

Another boost is the fact that House Speaker Paul Ryan has repeatedly said that criminal justice reform is a priority issue for him and one of the few things Congress can get done this year.

But the process is not without obstacles. The number one issue is timing. The closer we get to elections, the harder it becomes for Congress to do anything meaningful. Primaries and campaigns take all the air out the room.

The clock is ticking and we need the support of advocates like you. If your Senator is not listed as a supporter of the bill already (see here), then you should be calling his/her office to get them on the bill.

But I’m optimistic. Politically, we have all the right ingredients for the bill to pass. Substantively, this is an issue whose time has come. The bills are not perfect, and more has to be done, but we need your help to get this important effort across the finish line.

Join with us during this call-in week and urge your Senator to cosponsor the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to speak with your Senator.

Michael Collins is the deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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