Goodlatte: Criminal justice reform still alive

Bob Goodlatte

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, insisted Friday that reports of the demise of criminal justice reform legislation in Congress have been greatly exaggerated.

Goodlatte said he is still hopeful the package of 11 bills he shepherded through the Judiciary Committee he chairs still has a chance of passing the House in the lame duck session of Congress after the election.

“I think it is very likely to come up in the lame duck session,” Goodlatte said, adding that the House leadership has “in no way backed away from this.”

The legislation would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders in federal courts. Judges would be able to exert more independent decision-making when imposing sentencing.

Other provisions in the legislation make it easier for people caught up in criminal investigations to recover property seized by law enforcement if they are not subsequently charged with a crime.

Another part of the legislation allows local police stations to use new technology to conduct DNA tests, a departure from current practices that require DNA evidence to be sent to state crime laboratories where it can languish for months.

Goodlatte spoke optimistically at a criminal justice summit earlier this month about the chances of reform legislation passing the House, but the mood among other key lawmakers darkened soon after, and Congress adjourned this week with no action taken.

The lame duck session scheduled for mid-November offers one last chance for supporters of the legislation.

Goodlatte said the legislation continues to enjoy bipartisan support. The House leadership recently surveyed Republican members, a sign that Goodlatte took as an attempt to gauge how much support the legislation would receive in a vote later this year.

“We’re continuing to work along those lines,” Goodlatte said. “It’s a very bipartisan piece of legislation, and we are pressing hard to bring it up for November.”

The Senate’s Judiciary Committee has also passed a version of the legislation, but Goodlatte is less certain about its prospects in the other chamber. Some media outlets have reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., shelved the legislation in an effort to avoid splitting Senate Republicans as they struggle to maintain their majority against a strong challenge by Democrats.

Also cited as reasons for why the legislation is bogged down are recent spikes in violent crime in some large cities, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s calls for law and order,  and GOP lawmakers’ reluctance to hand President Obama – a supporter of criminal justice reform – a victory in his last months in office.

Goodlatte said a crowded legislative calendar was a major obstacle, citing conflicts over funding to alleviate the Zika virus outbreak and water contamination in Flint, Michigan, as examples of the kinds of issues diverting attention from criminal justice reform.

“When people are focused on answering the most pressing calls of the moment, they don’t always get focused on moving forward a major piece of legislation that doesn’t have to move along on any given day,” Goodlatte said.

He said supporters of criminal justice reform are committed to pushing the legislation in 2017 if it falls short this year.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com.