Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is recruiting tough-on-crime hawks in the Senate in an effort to block the passage of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill supported by an unlikely tag-team of conservatives and progressives ranging from the Koch brothers and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on the right to President Obama and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the left.
Among other criminal justice reforms, the bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent crimes and give courts and prosecutors more flexibility in reconsidering previously-applied minimum sentences.
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Freshman Senator Cotton has positioned himself as a national security and foreign policy hawk, and, according to Politico, he is actively rallying Republicans to turn against the bill.
“It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons. I think it’s no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question … [but] I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do,” said Cotton.
Responding to Cotton’s claim that the bill would lead to the release of violent felons, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “It’s not true. I’d say, please read the bill and listen to people like [former Attorney General] Michael Mukasey, who makes the point, which is a critical point, that there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card.”
The bill’s supporters say that inmates can only be released early under the bill if the judge and prosecutor that originally handled the case agree with the sentencing reduction.
Cotton’s anti-reform coalition has reportedly attracted the support of Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who once supported criminal justice reform, also recently questioned whether violent criminals might slip out of prison if the bill passes.
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MSNBC’s Steve Benen wrote, “There’s a real possibility that the votes would exist to pass the bill anyway, despite Cotton and his faction, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is unlikely to move forward on a high-profile bill that’s dividing his conference, and the more right-wing members balk, the less likely it is the GOP-led House will approve the bipartisan compromise.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week, “Members of the Judiciary Committee have been deeply involved on that issue, the rest of us have not. So we’re going to be working through the process of bringing everybody in the Republican Conference up to speed on this very important issue, and we’re going to do that before any decision is made about floor time.”
McConnell’s comments seem to suggest that he may delay bringing the bill to a vote until tensions calm among Senate Republicans.
In an interview on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a criminal justice reform supporter, said of Cotton’s goal line stand against the bill, “You know, I think he’s making a mistake here because I think the country is moving in the other direction. A lot of us believe in second chances. You know, when I saw Peyton Manning giving the ball to Demaryius Thomas and saying this is for your mom, I had a great deal of sympathy for his mom. She’s been in jail for 15 years for a non-violent crime. That doesn’t mean what she doing was correct or right, but the thing is is fifteen years is a long time for a non-violent crime. His grandmother is in jail for two life sentences, forty years a piece, the minimum she can get out is forty years — for dealing drugs, and yet you can shoot somebody in Kentucky and be eligible for parole in twelve years.”
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is widely seen as President Obama’s last major initiative that currently has enough bipartisan support to potentially pass in 2016.