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Bipartisan Criminal Justice Bill Unlikely to Pass Anytime Soon

J. Scott Applewhite

Congress has now gaveled out of session until after the election, but that doesn’t mean they finished all their homework. Virginia’s lawmakers have played a key role in negotiating an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system. 

But for the time being, that bipartisan effort has stalled out. 

A Virginia Republican, Bob Goodlatte, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Before lawmakers left Washington to campaign, he spent time getting his members up to speed on the bill.

But he says it’s up to party leaders as to whether to bring the bill up for a vote after the election, though Goodlatte wants it to come to the floor this year.  

“We certainly hope it will. We’re working very hard in that direction – doing a lot of briefings. But it’s up to leadership – it’s their decision, not mine,” says Goodlatte.

The proposal would phase out some mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, while also increasing maximum minimum sentences for violent crimes. The bill maintains broad support that cuts across party lines.

Still, Virginia Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott isn’t a fan of the bill. He’s rumored to be tapped to replace Tim Kaine in the Senate if Kaine becomes Vice President.

Scott argues just having Republicans and Democrats on board doesn’t make good legislation.

“The fact that it’s bipartisan doesn’t add to the evidence – what effect will it have?" Scott says. "If mass incarceration is your problem, what does it do for mass incarceration? What evidence and research do you show where it can reduce crime and save money?” 

Credit Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

According to Scott there’s one glaring flaw in Goodlatte’s legislation: inmates who are charged with less serious crimes get more attention than the bill than those charged with more serious crimes. 

“It ought to be just the opposite. Most of the focus ought to be on the high risk, and low risk obviously don’t need that much help," says Scott.

And Scott says there are other flaws, like focusing on penalties for offenders.

"It has a couple of good provisions in it, but overall it doesn’t address mass incarceration," Scott says. "It fights the war on drugs the old fashioned way, by increasing penalties.”

Regardless, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will even get a say before the end of the session. Retiring Virginia Republican Randy Forbes says it’s hard for Congress to do anything substantial in an election year.

“The problem is you’ve got people going in such different directions, both mentally, politically and also right now, just, logistically, it’s hard to get all that stuff wrapped up," says Forbes.

But Democrats argue Congress should not have recessed for another six weeks when there’s still work to be done. 

“The paralysis in Congress has an unexplainable element to it when you’ve got the consensus we seem to have and a fairly clear direction on what needs to happen in the details of criminal justice reform, it is so frustrating that we’re not moving,” says Northern Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly.  

Connolly says he hopes this Congress can tackle the issue later this year.

“If we can reach bipartisan accord on a thoughtful bill on criminal justice reform, I think now is always a better time than later,” he says.

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