Congressional criminal justice push falters, despite budget gains

Congressional criminal justice push falters, despite budget gains

- in Congress

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn is pictured. | Getty

Cornyn said taxpayer savings are another good reason to support the bill, though boosting public safety is the best reason to do so. | Getty

In a year of tight budgets and bitter partisanship, Congress appears ready to turn down a chance to save hundreds of millions of dollars through criminal justice reform legislation that has broad bipartisan support.

The reform effort, which aims to shorten mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and ease the path of former felons back into the workforce, was expected to be one of the few major pieces of legislation to become law this year. But GOP aides in the House and Senate have been growing increasingly bearish over the past month.

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Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the foremost backers of the bill, threw more cold water on prospects for passage in a brief interview this week, saying he expected the House to move first — not the Senate, as long presumed. “All our eyes are on Chairman Goodlatte and the speaker,” Cornyn said of House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), and Speaker Paul Ryan. House GOP leadership aides gave no indication legislation would hit the House floor any time soon. An aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he had no scheduling information to provide on the bill, which has sharply divided his conference.

The effort has supporters from across the political spectrum, including Cornyn, Ryan, conservative firebrand Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, as well as Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the liberal Center for American Progress and President Barack Obama.

Many advocates tout the public safety benefits as well as the chance to provide some measure of redemption to people. But the fiscal factor — with taxpayers spending $7 billion annually on the federal Bureau of Prisons — has proven a valuable tool in stitching together a bipartisan coalition.

Supporters of the effort fired off news releases last month after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Senate sentencing reform package would save $722 million over a decade. The House is advancing a series of bills through Goodlatte’s committee, with one of them saving $769 million over a decade, according to the CBO.

“I’ve said for years now that criminal justice reform should appeal to everyone, no matter what you’re political lens is,” Booker said. “Most definitely, fiscal conservatives will see that this massive explosion of federal government … that this actually comes with a big, big cost. It’s squeezing out other budgetary priorities. And so here we have a clear CBO scoring that’s encouraging, that shows we could be saving hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Cornyn said the taxpayer savings are another good reason to support the bill, though boosting public safety is the best reason to do so.

“I see the cost savings to the government as a nice feature, a nice additional benefit. It is not the principal driver,” Lee said in an interview in his Senate office. “The principal driver, as I see it, involves the human cost more than just the economic cost.”

The fiscal impact of reform extends beyond the annual cost of housing prisoners, though those costs are not insignificant. In 2013, 11 states spent more on corrections than on higher education, spurring some state legislatures to overhaul sentencing laws. But it’s at the federal level where the economic impact of reform, even beyond the immediate savings, may be most appealing.

“More work needs to be done to make sure policy makers understand that the cost of incarceration is not limited to the prison costs per day,” said Marc Levin, policy director for Right on Crime, a conservative group that advocates criminal justice reform.

The CBO noted myriad ways in which high incarceration rates negatively impact the country’s fiscal outlook in a separate May report. Incarceration in federal prisons imposes direct costs on the taxpayer, of course, but there are also indirect costs.

For one, those in jail are not working and paying taxes on their income. Upon release from jail, people who have been incarcerated are less likely to find employment, which means they’re more likely to rely on federal benefit programs.

And the impacts extend even to the next generation. As CBO notes: “Young men who are jobless or incarcerated today are less likely to marry, less likely to stay married, and less likely to have children who live in two-parent households than their counterparts who are employed or in school. Because the earnings of the next generation are likely to be affected by the families in which they grow up, adverse consequences for today’s families can have long-run economic impacts.”

“We have a historically low labor participation rate, and we have an aging society,” Levin said, pointing to the high numbers of young men who face difficulty getting work because of a criminal record. “We just can’t afford to have a workforce that’s diminishing.”

The incarcerated population in the United States is 4.5 times what it was in 1980, and the U.S. incarceration rate is more than quadruple the world average, according to an April report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

But in a year in which the Republican Party is divided by the nomination of Donald Trump as its presidential standard-bearer, party leaders appear wary of broaching an issue that could split the party further. That’s particularly true in the Senate, where rising conservative stars like Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas strongly oppose the effort.

Cotton said last month that the United States actually has an “under-incarceration problem.”

“I may be the vocal advocate for keeping felons in jail, I’m certainly not the only one,” Cotton told POLITICO recently. “The matter deeply divides our conference. [McConnell] controls the floor, but I don’t think we should dive into something that would risk so many hard won gains in so many places all around America.”

Lee was dismissive of Cotton’s arguments, saying, “I’m not sure what he’s talking about there.”

“It should get a vote on the floor,” Lee added. “I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t get a vote on the floor because I do think this would pass easily in the Senate.”

The fight over criminal justice reform is not likely to fade, even if Congress doesn’t act this year, and fiscal considerations are sure to remain at the center of the discussion.

The Justice Department’s inspector general, for example, released a report in May 2015 noting that inmates who are 50 years old and older are the fastest growing segment of the federal prison population. And the costs of an aging prison population, particularly when it comes to providing health care, are high.

“We’re spending tens of thousands of dollars for each one of those prisoners annually, money that could be used for public safety, money that could be used for counter-terrorism, money that could be used for our schools,” Booker said. “And at a time of tight dollars, does it really make sense for us to keep senior citizens in prison at such a high taxpayer expense when that money for our societal benefit could be better invested elsewhere?”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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