Steptoe & Johnson LLP
Following passage of a last-minute stopgap spending measure (commonly referred to as a continuing resolution or a CR) just before the September 30 deadline, October on Capitol Hill continued at a frenetic pace. The CR, which prevented a shutdown by keeping the government funded through December 11, was expected by many to be passed after a contentious partisan battle. However, it was done without much fanfare due in large part to House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) abrupt announcement that he would be retiring from Congress at the end of October, marking the end of his five-year tenure as Speaker of the House.
The vote for his replacement has turned into a chaotic and surprising process. To be elected Speaker of the House, a candidate needs to win the support of 218 House members, regardless of party affiliation. Given divisions in the Republican Conference, however, this rule means that the Republican nominee who eventually wins the speakership will have to work for all of his or her votes, since Democrats will likely vote for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Since the Republicans have 247 members, that means a bloc of 30 Republicans could prevent a candidate nominated by the Republican Conference from ascending to Speaker.
Although Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — whose office met with PORAC during the September fly-in — confirmed his candidacy for Speaker shortly after Boehner announced his retirement, he surprised congressional members and the public-at-large when he withdrew his candidacy on October 8 during the Republican Conference meeting to nominate the party’s candidate for Speaker. Representative McCarthy will remain Majority Leader.
At the time this issue went to print, the Republican Conference vote had neither occurred nor been scheduled, and the floor vote for Speaker had been scheduled for October 29. Nor was it clear who the GOP frontrunner would be for the speakership.
The confusion surrounding the future House leadership has put a wrench in Congress’ fall agenda schedule. There were a lot of time-sensitive priorities that Congress had to address before this article went to print, including the debt limit, highway funding and expired tax provisions, and it was unclear whether Congress would be able to resolve them in a timely fashion.
Amid the internal politics in the House, law enforcement issues remained an active topic in Washington, D.C. In the aftermath of PORAC’s successful fly-in, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a comprehensive sentencing reform bill, the Department of Justice awarded grants for the Cops Hiring Program (CHP) and the Body-Worn Camera (BWC) Implementation Pilot Program, and the debate over sanctuary city legislation continued.
On October 1, a bipartisan group of senators — including Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — introduced a bill that they described as “the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation.”
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) addresses criminal justice reform through a two-pronged solution: sentencing reform and prison reform. With respect to sentencing reform, the bill reduces several mandatory minimum sentences related to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses; enhances mandatory minimum sentences for felons caught in possession of a firearm; and creates mandatory minimum sentences in the cases of interstate domestic abuse and “export control.” The bill also amends “safety valves” to allow judges to use their discretion in determining if a mandatory minimum sentence is excessive for certain nonviolent offenses, and it works retroactively in many cases to lower sentences for those already accused of these crimes.
The bill also works to reform the “back end” of the criminal justice system by decreasing crowding in federal prisons. It does so by allowing medium-risk prisoners to earn early releases by completing anti-recidivism programs; limiting solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody; and providing for compassionate release for inmates who have served a large portion of their sentences, are more than 60 years old with no record of violence, or are terminally ill.
This bill reflects the truly bipartisan nature of the criminal justice reform movement and, given the momentum and unique coalition of supporters, it is one of few criminal justice reform bills that might have a chance of moving forward — and the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to examine the legislation on October 19. In the House, meanwhile, on October 8, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.), and Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Mike Bishop (R-Mich.) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) introduced a bill that closely tracks the Senate bill: the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015. PORAC will continue meeting with lawmakers involved in the process in both chambers to ensure that criminal justice reform policies are narrowly tailored and prioritize community safety.
Law Enforcement Funding
In the final weeks of September, the Department of Justice (DOJ) awarded grants to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies through two major initiatives: the CHP and the BWC Pilot Implementation Program.
CHP provides funding directly to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies for the hiring and rehiring of entry-level career law enforcement officers. These funds are distributed in an effort to create jobs and increase community-policing capacity and crime prevention efforts. The awards specifically address issues like violent crime, school safety, homeland security and community trust. This year, DOJ announced more than $107 million in grant funding through CHP for nearly 200 law enforcement agencies across the nation that will create and protect over 850 law enforcement positions. Twenty-one of these awards, totaling over $13 million, were granted to local law enforcement agencies in California.
The BWC Pilot Implementation Program, announced in May 2015, is part of President Obama’s commitment to building trust and transparency between local law enforcement and the communities they serve. In its initial year, the BWC Pilot Program awarded grants totaling more than $23.3 million to 73 local and tribal agencies in 32 states. Of the states that received awards, California received six awards totaling over $2.6 million — the most of any state that received funds. The localities benefiting include: the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office; the Los Angeles Police Department; the City of Pasadena; the City of Richmond; the City of Sacramento; and the City of San Bernardino.
In recent months, several bills have been introduced to combat so-called “sanctuary cities” — cities that have enacted policies that refuse to deport undocumented immigrants — and nearly all of the proposed bills seek to fix policies by reducing or eliminating access to federal law enforcement funds or grant programs.
On October 6, Senator David Vitter (R-La.) introduced the Stop Sanctuary Policies and Protect Americans Act (S. 2146). This is the second sanctuary cities bill introduced by Senator Vitter that would withhold State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) funds if state and local law enforcement refuse to act on immigration detainer requests from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). If the state does not comply, the bill would further withhold funds awarded through the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance (Byrne-JAG) program.
The bill also contains two additional provisions that increase the mandatory penalties for individuals who illegally re-enter the United States after being removed, and that frees states and cities from civil liability if they cooperate with detainer requests from DHS. At the time of publication, this bill was expected to be brought to the Senate floor for a vote on October 20.
PORAC remains concerned that these legislative efforts have the effect of penalizing law enforcement agencies for policy decisions that remain out of their control. Consequently, such legislation could potentially undermine the ability of local law enforcement organizations to engage in effective community policing.
To see pictures taken at the Fly-In, CLICK HERE