Police brutality has emerged in America as a signature of a broader public-policy disaster, an epidemic with roots deeper than a few derelict cops. It is a crisis that has grown to the point where few politicians believe the solution can be a Justice Department game of whack-a-mole to overhaul broken police departments.
For 2016 candidates, criminal justice is a campaign slogan, a promise that connects politicians from both parties to poor and minority communities who are disproportionately affected by soaring incarceration rates in their own neighborhoods.
Hillary Clinton's first major policy stand in her campaign was to "end the era of mass incarceration" that her husband, Bill Clinton, acknowledges he helped put into motion.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul has made reform the pivotal piece of his pitch to minority voters who typically don't skew Republican. He has sponsored legislation in Congress to give voting rights back to nonviolent felons, and he has spent time meeting with advocates in poor communities. Rick Perry, when he was Texas's governor, slashed budgets by overhauling his state's prison system. In a new book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice Reform, GOP presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, reveal in a series of essays just how universal the call for justice reform has become.
With every new scene of community upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri, in New York, in South Carolina, criminal-justice reform solidifies itself as a policy focal point in the political conversation. But far from the stump speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire, on Capitol Hill, where something can actually happen, the future of the movement is in the hands of one man—Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who is in the middle of what may be a real effort to move forward. And while staff discussions are just beginning, what just a few months ago seemed highly unlikely is beginning to seem possible.
In the past, Grassley has expressed deep concerns about reducing mandatory minimums. And while the Senate Judiciary Committee's work is limited by how far its chairman is willing to go, Grassley was not invited to a White House meeting in February to discuss reforms. President Obama met with the senator a week later.
But in an April speech to the National Press Club, Grassley acknowledged that his concerns shouldn't be taken as an all-out no.
"'I've been accused of being a road block to sentencing reform," Grassley said last month at the National Press Club. "Let me be clear. I have told my colleagues and the White House that I'd like to sit down and talk about how we can move forward."
In recent weeks, it seems that 2016 messaging and the national conversation about police brutality are melding into congressional action.
"This gives us some momentum. I think it is going to get done. It is overdue," says Sen. Jeff Flake, a member of the judiciary committee.
But how exactly to charge ahead with so many competing pieces of legislation continues to be the hurdle.
There is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which passed out of a Democrat-controlled committee in January 2014. That bill would reduce sentences for some drug crimes, but it has often been dismissed by Grassley. Then there is a prison-reform bill—sponsored by Majority Whip John Cornyn and ranking member on the committee Sheldon Whitehouse—that supports prisoners as they re-enter society after incarceration.
Simultaneously, there are ongoing efforts to provide police with more body cameras and rollback programs that allow military-grade equipment to flow to local police departments. The Judiciary Committee held a hearing last week on juvenile-justice reforms that could be made.
Grassley says he is most interested in cobbling together new legislation—at least on sentencing reform—to be voted on in committee. That way, the once-reluctant change agent could carefully ensure that reductions to sentencing are not made across the board.
"We are negotiating at the staff level at this point," Grassley told National Journal. "It hasn't involved members except previously when I went around to visit with everybody on the committee, and I asked them what their main thing was. The people who were involved in sentencing reform, I informed them that I was interested in writing a bill and wanted to start listening to them."
"And that is the way it should be, because we have different interests on the committee," Grassley added.
Grassley says that he is willing to reduce some sentences, but he thinks others should be raised.
"Do you really want to cut mandatory minimums in half for people who are importing cocaine and heroin and that stuff," Grassley asks. "Do you really want to do that? It seems to me those are hard criminal elements of our society doing a great deal of harm."
Grassley insists there is nothing new about his position, but Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, a sponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act, says he has seen a change.
"I sincerely hope that Chairman Grassley is listening to this bipartisan call for action," Durbin said. "I sense some openings that I didn't feel initially."
Another Democrat says that Grassley's tone has shifted.
"I think he's recognizing—particularly given the makeup of the committee—he needs to do something with respect to mandatory minimums. And what that is that he could live with, that would allow a bill to go forward and have that added to it, is the question of the day," a Democratic senator said on condition of background so he felt free to speak about Grassley.
As the 2016 circus screeches along with promises of reform back in his home state of Iowa, an unlikely criminal-justice advocate might just be doing the real work back in Washington.
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