With the GOP’s tax reform bill passed out of the House of Representatives on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, is hoping there’s an opening for criminal justice reform.
The Gainesville Republican has not only been a supporter of his party’s tax reform proposal — which has attracted mixed reviews as experts debate whether the complicated proposal cuts or raises taxes and spending in the long term — Collins gaveled in the vote that passed the bill Thursday. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, has already said he won’t vote for the bill. If two other Republicans oppose the proposal, it won’t have enough votes to clear the Senate as Democrats have remained united in opposition to all major GOP legislation, chief among them attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Collins praised the bill in an announcement Thursday, saying that “middle-class Americans and job creators deserve relief from burdensome taxes and the opportunity to pursue more of their ambitions on their terms.”
The tax reform bill, called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, delivers those changes to voters, Collins argues. House Democrats criticized the bill on Thursday.
“This bill will force homeowners and renters to pay more just to stay in their homes,” said Rep. Joe Crowley, D-New York, chairman of the House Democratic caucus. “It will force teachers to pay out of their own pockets for necessary school supplies. And it will make it harder for veterans to find meaningful work when they return to civilian life.”
But while the GOP and Democrats continue to debate tax reform in the Senate, Collins told The Times this week that he hopes another of his bills will get some more attention in the House.
The Redemption Act is Collins’ attempt to get Georgia-style criminal justice reform on the federal books. The bill focuses on evaluation, training and education of nonviolent offenders, including dealing with drug addiction, to make adjusting to society easier when sentences are concluded.
Among other things, it allows offenders to finish their sentences in lower-security prisons and halfway houses if they complete their program.
But on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed some skepticism about pre-release programs like the Redemption Act.
During a hearing largely focused on investigations of Russia, Sessions and Collins discussed the Georgia Republican’s bill.
The House Judiciary Committee met with Sessions for a five-hour hearing that included a range of topics from civil asset forfeiture to voting rights but was dominated by possible Russian meddling in the 2016 general election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
At the end of the hearing, Collins asked Sessions whether he and the Department of Justice would support a proposal similar to his bill.
“I believe a pre-release program can be effective,” Sessions said. “Most of the time, according to my experience, they don’t achieve huge results, but if they achieve 10, 15, 20 percent improvement, that’s of value.”
Sessions also noted a report from the DOJ that found some pre-release programs aren’t effective for a few different reasons, including no consequences for prisoners who drop out of the program.
On Wednesday, Collins said Session’s comment was exactly why his bill was a good proposal.
“The Redemption Act requires the Bureau of Prisons to use a standardized risk and needs assessment. This comes from working with states and looking at what they’ve done — Georgia included and Texas and others — so they can have a standardized program resource,” Collins said. “… What we’re not trying to do is just wait until the end to see if we can do early release programs and see if we can get these folks out.”
Collins is also resisting attempts to consolidate his bill with other criminal justice reform legislation into a sweeping package that would create not only a pre-release program for federal prisoners, but address sentencing reform and other controversial issues.
That means that issues surrounding mandatory-minimum sentences and drug crime sentences, both of which have seen popular opinion shift in recent years, won’t be addressed in the short term.
The Gainesville Republican said handling criminal justice reform issue-by-issue gives a better chance for progress, a position he says is shared by Trump’s son-in-law and policy adviser Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump.
“The groups that have been fighting in this area for years would love to see a comprehensive bill. The problem is there’s just too much disagreement in a comprehensive bill to move it quickly,” Collins said. “... Let’s get a bill that we can get both Republicans and Democrats to agree on, get it through the House, get it through the Senate and get it to the president to work on.”