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Hopes For Reducing Mass Incarceration Look Brighter Now That The Election Is Over

Authors of the bipartisan legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system say that members will be freer now to bring it up and pass it without the threat of an election year. But how Donald Trump, who campaigned on law and order, responds is an open question.

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WASHINGTON — Congress can now pass legislation to reform the criminal justice system "because the election's over," says Sen. Chuck Grassley, a co-author of the legislation that stalled last year.

"I wouldn't say there's not going to be any problems because you're starting over again," Grassley said Thursday, when asked about the outlook for reviving criminal justice reform legislation. "But to answer your question, the election had more to do with it than anything else."

Grassley, who serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Politico earlier this week that he and Sen. Dick Durbin would be re-introducing legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system once the committee has completed reviewing its share of President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet nominees.

The legislation aims to reduce mass incarceration in the US, as well as the cost to taxpayers, by lowering mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, among other things. Though the legislation had broad bipartisan support, it was not brought to the floor for a vote by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last year.

Grassley said on Thursday that the only reason the legislation didn't pass last year was the upcoming election.

"That's the answer, there's no other answer," Grassley responded when asked to expand on his comment.

House Speaker Paul Ryan also spoke in support of criminal justice legislation on Thursday, saying it’s “a priority of ours" in the House.

“This is something we wanted to get done last year — we ran out of time,” he told reporters at a press conference. “We intend to pick up where we left off and get moving again on criminal justice reform. I think it’s good policy, the right thing to do for lots of reasons.”

Grassley's sentiment is echoed by Holly Harris, executive director of the US Justice Action Network. "I think the election is behind us. I think that there are members who are now safe in their seats who may have been a bit squeamish before who I think could potentially be more supportive moving forward," she told BuzzFeed News on Thursday.

Critics of the legislation — including Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is poised to enter confirmation hearings to become Trump's attorney general — have claimed it's soft on crime and will let dangerous offenders out of prison early.

"I think the fear of getting hit with this in some sort of misleading ad is behind us and it's behind [many members of Congress]," Harris said.

Harris said she also believes some of the members who may have been fearful of the political consequences of supporting the legislation come from areas where similar state-level reforms are lowering costs and improving public safety.

"So I think the state successes, coupled with the fact that a very contentious election cycle is behind us, presents new opportunity for justice reform," she said.

Despite the renewed optimism, some have questioned whether the legislation has any chance of success with Trump in the White House. The president-elect ran on a campaign to "bring back law and order," but has not detailed what that means.

“It’s dead. It’s not something Trump wants and leadership has no incentive to anger him over it,” a Senate Republican aide close to the criminal justice reform effort told BuzzFeed News after the election.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said passing the legislation will require "a negotiation with the Trump administration."

Nevertheless, McConnell told reporters during the lame duck session that he "wouldn’t want to rule it out for [the] next Congress," which began on Tuesday.

An aide in Durbin's office said that whether the new reform legislation — which is expected to be very similar to the previous version — passes ultimately comes down to McConnell.

"We think — and Chairman Grassley agrees — that this should be a top priority," the aide said. "This is a bipartisan bill that will do a lot of good for a lot of people, and hopefully Senator McConnell sees it differently now that he's not just obstructing President Obama's agenda."

Grassley, asked whether he believes McConnell might put the legislation to a vote this time, said: "I think you've got to wait three or four months 'til we get a bill out there."

Grassley said "it'll be a while" before they introduce the legislation because of the upcoming confirmation hearings for Trump cabinet members, "but there will be work at the staff level starting right now."

Emma Loop is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Emma Loop at emma.loop@buzzfeed.com.

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