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Bipartisan Supporters of Criminal Justice Reform Had to Push GOP Leaders Past 'Memories of Willie Horton'

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) make a social media post before a news conference in the Capitol on Dec. 19, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON — Supporters of a criminal justice reform package that passed in the 11th hour of the 115th Congress said getting the president on board was key to even getting Senate GOP leadership to allow a vote on the long-suffering measure.

The First Step Act passed the House earlier this year and underwent some tweaking from Senate Democrats, drawing objections from some Republicans who felt it was too soft on crime. The reforms have long been pushed by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, credited with bringing President Trump on board.

The bill’s reforms for federal inmates include easing mandatory minimum sentences, easing the “three strikes” rule particularly as it’s been applied to drug offenders, reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, retroactively increasing credits for good behavior from a maximum of 47 days earned per year to 54, and earning more time credits against their sentence by successfully participating in vocational and rehabilitation programs. Those who have committed more serious offenses and undocumented immigrants would not qualify.

It passed 87-12 on Tuesday, with the nays coming from conservative and more moderate Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he wanted to “err on the side of public safety,” while Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said he was still “concerned that reducing sentences for drug traffickers and violent felons is a threat to public safety.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters at a press conference today with fellow supporters Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that “none of us expected an 87 to 12 vote, but we did expect 75 to 80, so the overwhelming passage of this legislation, I think, speaks to a lot of things, but most importantly, the combination that we have up here, bipartisanship.”

“We had to satisfy so many members that we eventually did satisfy, as you can see by an 87-12 vote, because about three weeks ago or four weeks ago in the Republican caucus we had to listen to a lot of people that had questions about the bill,” he noted. “Probably because at that point they hadn’t read the legislation, but one by one we were able to pick up cosponsors from 12 to 36, I believe, 18 Republicans, 18 Democrats.”

Grassley added that they were “gradually able to overcome the main obstacle to the bill, which was the reluctance” of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Speaking of the long road to move the bill, Durbin said that supporters “were stopped on the floor of the Senate by Mitch McConnell either because of memories of Willie Horton or the fact that his caucus was split over the issue, he just wouldn’t touch it. And we were stuck.”

“I think it reflects the fact that we realized that just getting muscular and tough on the war on drugs is not enough. We’ve got to use our brains in terms of interdicting those who would supply drugs to our country, trying to convince those who would become addicts not to do it and working in an honest good faith way with addicts to turn their lives around,” Durbin said. “In addition to that, those who are in prison because of this, many of them languish from decades in prison, decades, for a drug offense that doesn’t involve violence or firearms. These are people who deserve a second chance if they are willing to work for it.”

Lee said that Congress’ reaction to the war on drugs eventually “was taking people’s lives away in a different way — sometimes warehousing human beings for decades at a time, taking them away from their families, their faith communities, their neighborhoods, their places of employment, and opportunities for growth and experience and development.”

Passage of the bill, the Utah Republican said, “may be my proudest moment in eight years of the United States Senate.”

Booker said it was Grassley who took the bill “from being impossible to being possible” and added, “I forced him to hug me last night.” Lee, he said, “was the fullback on that goal-line stand pushing this thing through.”

“Our criminal justice system feeds upon the most vulnerable in this country the poor, the mentally ill, the addicted and disproportionately black and brown people. So when you correct an injustice in general and this bill addresses people from all backgrounds, all races, but when you correct an injustice in a biased system it dramatically helps those marginalized people,” Booker said.

“There are still lots of injustices that we need to address,” he added. “This is a first step in a long journey and the bipartisan commitment including the White House who said to me they are committed to continuing the work.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) addressed critics of the bill: “You say that somebody under this bill will get out and do something bad. That’s probably true, but what I hope you’ll realize that most people who get out under this bill a little bit early are going to contribute mightily. We are going to lower the cost of our prison system, we are going to get people earned second chances.”

“To those who say you should never let them out, that ain’t working. Every category you’re qualified for good time. If you just behave yourself in jail no matter the offense you can get out early in most cases just to keep the jail from blowing up. All we did is create another way to get out early if you are a nonviolent offender and you are low-risk.”

Lee noted that the bill “died a thousand deaths just in the last few months alone, and so even though the ultimate vote was overwhelming and supportive there were a thousand times when we had to rescue it from the fire.”

“That’s what makes it so gratifying,” he added.