Goodlatte optimistic reform bills will pass this year

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, was upbeat Tuesday about the chances of criminal justice reform legislation passing Congress this year, despite the shadow cast by a turbulent presidential election.

Goodatte said he was “very optimistic” about the future of the legislation – a package of 11 bills – and defended its purpose of easing sentences for certain offenses and increasing opportunities for rehabilitation while continuing to preserve public safety against the most dangerous criminals.

“These are very bipartisan bills and I think will command a lot of support, a big vote, in the House,” Goodlatte said.

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte controls a key chokepoint in the legislative process for bills pertaining to the criminal justice system.

Goodlatte spoke at a criminal justice summit that brought together a variety of experts, including law enforcement officials, attorneys and activists. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Gov. Terry McAuliffe were among those appearing on separate panels.

One bill focusing on drug offenses would reduce certain mandatory minimum sentences, including the current three-strike 25-years-to-life sentence imposed in some cases. The bill would also give judges more authority to fashion their own sentences.

Not every part of the bill was written to make sentencing less harsh. One provision increases sentences for offenses involving fentanyl, a drug that is mixed with heroin to provide a more addictive and dangerous high that has been blamed for many overdose deaths.

Another bill tries to rein in civil forfeiture abuse by law enforcement agencies by raising the standard of proof required before authorities can seize someone’s property for a suspected connection to a criminal activity. The bill also includes a provision for tighter oversight of law enforcement when property is seized.

Most of the bills pertain to federal laws and agencies, which constitute a far smaller part of the criminal justice system than their state counterparts. But one bill would allow local police stations to conduct DNA tests with an updated form of technology, an innovation that can identify or rule out suspects within 90 minutes. Current technology often requires a months-long wait after DNA evidence is shipped off to state crime laboratories.

Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, praised the legislation while also calling it a “modest” reform compared to what he would like to have seen.

“We give Congressman Goodlatte a lot of credit for trying to move this forward,” Ring said, adding that he doubted the legislation could overcome election year politics in Congress.

“In a normal year, these bills would pass easily, but two months before a presidential election, we’re worried about how it will go,” Ring said.

Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, took a harder line on the legislation, citing a steep drop in crime since the early 1980s that he attributed to tougher sentencing laws that are now under reconsideration. Cook said for every 1 percent reduction in the federal prison population, an additional 32,000 serious crimes will be committed.

“The federal criminal justice system is simply not broken,” Cook said. “In fact, it’s working exactly as intended.”

He warned that criminal justice reform will deprive police and prosecutors of the tools they have used to reduce crime by one half in recent decades.

“It will release armed career criminals,” Cook said of the criminal justice reform legislation. “It will reduce, slash, the sentence armed career criminals face by a third.”

Goodlatte responded that the legislation toughens sentences for some crimes and cited the provision covering fentanyl as one of several examples. Those convicted of a violent crime such as armed robbery or carjacking will also face harsher than usual sentencing if they are convicted of a subsequent drug offense.

“The House bill has been very careful to look at this and make sure that we do not allow any sentence reduction for anybody who is in prison for a violent crime,” Goodlatte said.

Goodlatte’s opponent in the general election, Kai Degner, a city council member in Harrisonburg, was not present at the summit, but he said in a telephone interview that he agreed with the thrust of the legislation.

“This is an example where Bob Goodlatte’s position is relevant to the entire nation,” Degner said. “Criminal justice reform is long overdue.

“From my time on the city council in Harrisonburg, dealing with the pressures for jail expansions, I understand the current criminal justice system is often unjust and too expensive.”

Degner criticized the legislation for failing to include a provision that would remove marijuana as a schedule I drug, a category that also includes heroin and cocaine.

“Bob Goodlatte thinks marijuana is a dangerous substance and thereby he perpetrates this problem in our criminal justice system,” Degner said.

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