National Politics

Ted Cruz rallies conservatives with changes to criminal justice reform plan

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 6, 2017.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 6, 2017. AP

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Sen. Ted Cruz is proposing expanding the list of violent offenders who wouldn’t be eligible for early release programs under the criminal justice plan now being pushed by the White House and top Senate lawmakers.

Though similar to the changes the Texas Republican has long sought to include — and the bill’s sponsors have long ignored — Cruz got his way Friday, when his office announced an amendment he proposed would be included in the plan.

Criminal justice reform advocates hope the move will bring some reluctant conservatives on board to pass the measure before the end of the year.

The plan could likely advance from the Senate with the combined support of Democrats and Republicans, but GOP leaders have been reluctant to put it up for a vote without the support of conservative members of their party.

Though Cruz has long been a proponent of changes to the criminal justice system, he explained of his proposal to the Star-Telegram Thursday: “My principal concern is that we should not be releasing violent offenders.”

“I’ve drafted an amendment that would exclude violent offenders and ensure that we’re directing the relief at nonviolent offenders,” he added. Cruz declined to share the text of his amendment.

The sweeping criminal justice plan supported by the White House and Congressional leaders, called the First Step Act, beefs up programs designed to help prisoners re-enter society, and gives judges greater flexibility in assigning leaner sentences for some low-level drug crimes.

If prisoners participate in the bill’s anti-recidivism programs such as job training, education and faith-based classes, they could earn credits to be released from prison early and serve the remainder of their sentence in home confinement or halfway houses — something conservatives have voiced concern about.

Sources familiar with the discussions say Cruz’s proposal limits the list of offenders who qualify for those programs.

It also changes a part of the bill that would give judges more flexibility in assigning more lenient sentences to people who have committed multiple drug crimes.

Current law makes offenders ineligible for exemption from mandatory minimums if they’ve committed more than one offense. The First Step Act would expand it up to four, and allow some exceptions for offenses above that number as well.

Under Cruz’s plan, if a person has accrued more than four criminal offenses, a judge would not be allowed to give an exception to current mandatory minimum sentences.

“I’m happy to report that, after working closely with the White House and the sponsors of this bill, they have decided to accept my amendment,” Cruz said in a statement Friday. “This new version of the bill resolves my concerns, and is one that I wholeheartedly support and cosponsor.”

Texas successfully implemented the types of reform in its state prison system more than a decade ago. Yet Cruz, once a top ally of the criminal justice movement, has for weeks been a glaring omission from its list of supporters.

He previously sponsored a bill to change the nation’s sentencing laws, but rescinded his support that plan during his 2015 GOP presidential bid, demanding similar changes be included to exempt violent offenders.

Advocates pushing the reforms said Thursday argued that Cruz’s changes aren’t necessary, pointing to a risk and needs assessment that all inmates would be subjected to before coming out of prison.

With only a few days left on the Congressional calendar, however, they’re optimistic his support could ease the deadlock that’s prevented the plan from being considered for a vote.

On Thursday one of the bill’s most vocal opponents, Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said he wants to see a separate effort overhauling the nation’s sentencing laws — something not likely to be addressed by Cruz’s tweaks.

“The concern of many people, which is legitimate, is who are we letting out early here?” said Kennedy. “I understand that and it’s a real concern, but I just think the approach is wrong.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee overseeing the bill, said his goal is to attach the measure to the year-end spending bill. He said he spoke with House Speaker Paul Ryan about the bill Thursday and that Ryan backs it.

Graham tweeted Friday that President Donald Trump also supports that plan.

But time is running out while Republicans control both the House and Senate. Congress hopes to end its session December 21, and next year the House will be run by Democrats.

“We’re still lobbying [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, he has all the power to allow it or not allow it,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, a bill supporter, said of a vote on criminal justice reform.

Paul, who along with his activist wife Kelley, has pushed hard for the measure, said he expected to pick up two more votes this week —including Cruz.

Paul noted that others are mounting a “last-ditch effort” to get the bill included on the spending bill,.

Asked if he’d vote for a spending bill that had criminal justice attached to it, Paul — who routinely votes against spending bills — paused and laughed.

“I don’t vote for spending bills that spend money we don’t have, but there are plenty of people who do,” he said.

This story was updated at 3:00 p.m. Dec. 7, 2018, to reflect the inclusion of Sen. Cruz’s amendment as part of the First Step Act.

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.
Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.