1. Update
  2. Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice Reform in the 116th Congress

By Allison Lee, November 26, 2018

With Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives, and the passage of several major criminal justice reform ballot initiatives, the future looks bright for comprehensive criminal justice reform.

In Florida, voters passed Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to most people convicted of felonies after they complete their sentences. This was the biggest expansion of voting rights since passage of the 26th amendment--1.4 million citizens will have their voting rights restored. Voters also passed Amendment 11, which repeals a constitutional provision that prevented amendments to criminal sentencing laws from being applied retroactively. This was an important step toward addressing mass incarceration. Too often sentencing laws are changed and people are left in prison under defunct and unjust laws.

Louisiana voters said yes to Amendment 2, a Jim Crow era law that allowed non-unanimous juries to convict people of felonies – which was a way to get around the 14th amendment requiring black people be included on juries. The state allowed for split juries so that the few black jurors could be easily overruled by a white majority.

And Coloradans passed Amendment A, which ends prison labor without pay, making Colorado one of the few states in the nation that forbids free prison labor.

These are substantive wins. American voters are standing up and making it clear that they want criminal justice reform. Our elected officials should take notice—it’s expected that we will see more momentum for reform at a federal level as time progresses.

In the 116th Congress, Sen. Grassley (IA) will leave the Senate Judiciary Committee chairmanship to lead the Finance Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) is likely to take his place. Sen. Graham has been an avid supporter and advocate for comprehensive criminal justice reform. The gavels of the House are also changing hands. Rep. Jerry Nadler (NY-10) will likely assume leadership of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) is expected to become the chairwoman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. Reps. Steve Chabot (OH-1) and Doug Collins (GA-9) will be in the race for ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

With advocates for criminal justice reform in powerful Judiciary chairmanships, we can look forward to progress in the 116th Congress. We can also expect to see more aggressive hearings and actions on major problems such as closures of halfway houses, implementation of important reentry bills like the Second Chance Act, and hearings examining what formerly incarcerated citizens face upon their release with little support (i.e. collateral consequences).

President Trump recently endorsed the FIRST STEP Act, a version of a bipartisan bill that passed in the House this summer. The Senate introduced a revised version of the legislation that includes sentencing reform, thereby making it a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill. It was important that the President and law enforcement (a group that is very influential in Congress) supported sentencing and prison reform. If the FIRST STEP Act does not pass this term, there is concern that the House may take a broader approach to criminal justice reform next year and the Senate a more conservative one. It will be important to see how these approaches are reconciled. Consensus bills like the Second Chance Reauthorization Act could have an easy road to passage if floor time is accorded.

There is much to do and we have only just begun. Mass incarceration was constructed through policing policies, excessive mandatory minimum sentences, few opportunities for rehabilitation, and much more. We have an opportunity to change things in the next congress. Let’s get to work.

Allison Lee

  • 2018 Program Assistant, Domestic Policy

Allison Lee was a FCNL Young Fellow from 2018-2019. She worked alongside José Woss on criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform (election integrity), and police militarization. Her primary responsibilities included lobbying members of Congress, writing policy updates, and conducting legislative research. She has always been very passionate about dismantling systems that promote racial disparities.