Criminal justice reform bill clears first test vote in Senate

WASHINGTON – Legislation that would ease federal sentencing laws for some offenders cleared its first major test vote Monday, garnering overwhelming support in both parties even as some conservatives portrayed the bill as soft on crime. The Senate voted 82-12 to advance the bill. A vote on final passage would come later in the week, … Continue reading “Criminal justice reform bill clears first test vote in Senate”

WASHINGTON – Legislation that would ease federal sentencing laws for some offenders cleared its first major test vote Monday, garnering overwhelming support in both parties even as some conservatives portrayed the bill as soft on crime.

The Senate voted 82-12 to advance the bill. A vote on final passage would come later in the week, but not until the chamber has debated and voted on a series of amendments from opponents that will be brought up Tuesday.

The bill would give judges more discretion when sentencing drug offenders and allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty. The bill also encourages prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism, with the reward being the accumulation of credits that can be used to gain an earlier release to a halfway house or home confinement to finish out their sentence.

To win over wary senators, sponsors tweaked the bill to prevent those convicted of violent firearm offenses, sexual exploitation of children and high-level fentanyl and heroin dealing from participating in the supervised release program — but Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and others want to expand that list.

Their amendment would add carjacking, bank robbery by force, felony sex crimes and other "felony crimes of violence" to the list of offenses that make a prisoner ineligible.

"Some of those crimes should not be eligible for that program," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. "At this point, I'm probably a no unless they get that done."

Cotton has been among the most vocal opponents of the legislation, saying: "If other senators want to vote for a bill that's going to let sex offenders and child pornographers and wife-beaters out of prison, that's their prerogative. That's between them and the voters in their state."

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The bill has created a unique split in the GOP camp, while Democrats are overwhelmingly supportive.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a former federal prosecutor, is among the bill's champions. He said he has been haunted by the words of a federal judge who sentenced a low-level drug offender carrying a gun to 55 years in prison, noting that murderers, rapists and terrorists could get less time for their offense. He said only Congress could fix the problem.

"Those comments have stayed with me ever since," Lee said.

The bill follows the lead of states such as Texas that have experienced a decrease in crime in recent years while keeping fewer people in prison. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said his home state has been able to close eight prisons since undertaking various prison reforms, such as investing in probation staffing and getting prisoners into drug treatment more quickly.

"This is not about being tough on crime, or soft on crime," Cornyn said. "This is about being smart on crime and getting the best results."

GOP Sens. Lee, Cotton spar over criminal justice reform bill

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Supporters of the bill warn that amendments from Cotton and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., could cause the compromise to unravel if the Senate approves any of them as early as Tuesday. A unique cross-section of liberal and conservative advocacy groups have rallied in support of the bill.

David Safavian, general counsel for the American Conservative Union, said the bill's critics ignore that offenders would be subject to strict oversight while completing their sentence at halfway houses or in home custody. The prisoners also have to show through objective criteria that they are a low risk to society before obtaining supervised release.

Under the current process, nearly half of released federal prisoners are arrested again.

"And every case of recidivism is another victim, is another crime, is another prosecution, is another trial, is another prison cell, all funded with taxpayer dollars," Safavian said. "I'm sorry, but there is nothing conservative about protecting a non-functioning prison bureaucracy."

If the legislation passes the Senate, the House is expected to approve it quickly. The House had earlier passed legislation that focused on boosting prisoner rehabilitation programs but did not include changes to sentencing laws that critics say had led to overly harsh sentences for many nonviolent offenders, particularly African-Americans.

The bill looked to have stalled a couple weeks ago, but supporters led by President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner persuaded Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to allow for the Senate vote before Congress adjourns.

Federal court blocks Trump administration birth control coverage rules

A divided federal appeals court blocked the Trump administration Thursday from enforcing a series of revised ObamaCare rules that would have enabled more employers to opt out of providing contraception coverage to workers over religious or moral objections.

The 2-1 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a group of five states were likely to succeed in claiming that the changes to the Affordable Care Act were made without the required notice and period of public comment.

ObamaCare originally required most companies to cover birth control at no additional cost, though it included exemptions for religious organizations. The Trump administration's new policy allowed more categories of employers, including publicly traded companies, to opt out of providing free contraception to women by claiming religious objections. It also allowed any company that is not publicly traded to deny coverage on moral grounds.

California filed a lawsuit to block the changes and was joined by Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia. The state argued that the change could result in millions of California women losing free birth control services, leading to unintended pregnancies that would tax the state's health care and other social programs.

The panel's ruling barred enforcement of the rule changes in those states but also vacated part of a preliminary injunction issued last year by a California federal judge that barred the rules from being enforced nationwide.

KAVANAUGH CASTS DECIDING VOTE AS SUPREME COURT REJECTS REVIEW OF MEDICAID FUNDING FOR PLANNED PARENTHOOD

"The scope of the [preliminary] injunction is overbroad," Senior Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote in the majority opinion.

The Department of Justice said in court documents that the revised rules were about protecting a small group of "sincere religious and moral objectors" from having to violate their beliefs. The department had no immediate comment on Thursday's ruling.

NAPOLITANO: THE CHIEF JUSTICE TAKES ON TRUMP

Trump has criticized the 9th Circuit after its judges have dealt him a series of legal setbacks on immigration and other White House policies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Judge throws out most of lawsuit against Trump immigration move

SAN FRANCISCO – The Trump administration provided adequate justification for its decision to end a program that reunited hundreds of immigrants from Central America with family members in the U.S., a federal judge ruled Monday.

Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler threw out the bulk of a lawsuit that argued the termination of the Obama-era Central American Minors program was arbitrary and violated the U.S. Constitution.

The program allowed parents legally in the U.S. to apply to bring children or other family members living in Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador to the U.S.

One of the goals was to discourage children from making the dangerous journey from those countries to the U.S. to be with family.

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More than 1,300 people came to the U.S. under the program between 2014 and the end of 2016, according to figures cited in Beeler's decision.

When it ended the program in August 2017, the Trump administration revoked approval for roughly 2,700 additional immigrants who were set to travel to the U.S.

In her ruling, Beeler said the decision to revoke those approvals was arbitrary and capricious and required more analysis and explanation.

Linda Evarts, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project who is representing plaintiffs, said she welcomed that part of the ruling and called the decision "an important first step."

Beeler in a separate order suggested the plaintiffs might be able to revise their lawsuit to address some of her concerns.

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The judge, however, found the administration had sufficient policy and legal arguments for its decision to end the Central American Minors program.

The Obama administration granted refugee or parole status to 99 percent of the people it interviewed for the program, giving them a greenlight to come to the U.S., according to State Department figures in Beeler's decision.

The Trump administration argued that immigration law called for a more sparing, case-by-case approach. It also said granting parole broadly created an incentive for illegal immigration and contributed to security problems along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Beeler said the administration rationally concluded that the program was not consistent with its immigration policy and its view of immigration law. She said she was not authorized to second-guess those conclusions.

She also rejected arguments that the decision to end the program violated due process and equal protection.

Senate overwhelmingly votes to renew farm programs

WASHINGTON – The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday for a sweeping agriculture bill that will fund key farm safety net programs for the next five years without making significant changes to the food stamp program.

The vote was 87-13. The House is expected to pass the measure soon and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the bill up for a quick vote Tuesday, less than one day after the House and Senate reached an agreement on the final text.

The measure is the result of months of negotiations and does not make any significant changes — despite pressure from President Donald Trump — to the food stamp program that serves nearly 40 million low-income Americans.

"This is what happens when the Congress works in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., ahead of the vote. "It's a good bill that accomplishes what we set out to do: provide certainty and predictability for farmers and families in rural communities."

The legislation sets federal agricultural and food policy for five years and provides more than $400 billion in farm subsidies, conservation programs and food aid for the poor. It reauthorizes crop insurance and conservation programs and funds trade programs, bioenergy production and organic farming research. It also reduces the cost for struggling dairy producers to sign up for support programs and legalizes the cultivation of industrial hemp, an initiative championed by McConnell.

One thing the bill doesn't have: tighter work requirements for food stamp recipients, a provision of the House bill that became a major sticking point during negotiations.

"We maintain a strong safety net for farmers and importantly, we maintain a strong safety net for our families," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the most senior Democrat on the agriculture committee. "We said no to harmful changes that would take food away from families, and instead increased program integrity and job training to be able to make sure things should be working as they should and every dollar is used as it should be."

The House bill would have raised the age of recipients subject to work requirements from 49 to 59 and required parents with children older than 6 years to work or participate in job training. The House measure also sought to limit circumstances under which families who qualify for other poverty programs can automatically be eligible for SNAP, and earmarked $1 billion to expand work-training programs.

By contrast, the bipartisan Senate bill, which passed 86-11, offered modest adjustments to existing farm programs and made no changes to SNAP.

Throughout the negotiation process, Trump made his support for work requirements clear, tweeting about the issue multiple times. But negotiators ultimately rejected the most controversial House measures related to SNAP, making no significant changes to the program. The outcome is a victory for Democrats, who refused to support them.

The final bill also preserves states' ability to provide waivers and does not change eligibility criteria. It does increase funding for employment and job training programs from $90 million to roughly $103.9 million per year.

The two chambers also clashed over portions of the bill's forestry and conservation sections. But the most contentious pieces of the House version, such as relaxing restrictions on pesticide use, didn't make it into the final text.

Negotiations were complicated in recent weeks when the White House asked Congress to make changes to the forestry section in response to deadly wildfires in California, giving more authority to the Agriculture and Interior departments to clear forests and other public lands. The final text doesn't significantly increase the agencies' authority.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Monday the bill "maintains a strong safety net for the farm economy, invests in critical agricultural research and will promote agriculture exports through robust trade programs," but voiced disappointment over the failed changes to the work requirement.

"While we would have liked to see more progress on work requirements for SNAP recipients and forest management reforms, the conference agreement does include several helpful provisions, and we will continue to build upon these through our authorities," he said.

The bill also maintains current limits on farm subsidies, but includes a House provision to expand the definition of family to include first cousins, nieces and nephews, making them eligible for payments under the program.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, a strong proponent of stricter work requirements, thanked Perdue and the administration for their support.

"America's farmers and ranchers are weathering the fifth year of severe recession, so passing a farm bill this week that strengthens the farm safety net is vitally important," Conaway said.

Violent caravan clash after media minimized Trump’s warnings

Well, I guess some people in the caravan were looking to make trouble after all.

The situation got out of control in Tijuana on Sunday as hundreds of migrants tried to evade Mexican police and ran toward a border crossing that leads to San Diego.

Customs officials shut down the border for hours and fired tear gas to push the migrants back. Some threw rocks at the American officers, a number of whom were hit, and the border was shut down for hours. Some 42 migrants were arrested on the U.S. side.

All in all, not a pretty picture.

The inevitable political question: Was President Trump right about the caravan?

The media depicted the president as shamelessly hyping the threat from the caravan, which started in Honduras, solely to rouse his base for the midterms.

Two things, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Trump did pound away at the caravan as part of an effort to make illegal immigration a major midterm issue. And most of the media treated the traveling migrants as sympathetic figures who didn't pose a threat to anyone.

The reality turned out to be more complicated. Not all the migrants were a threat, and many legitimately hoped to seek asylum from persecution or economic hardship. But the hundreds who stormed the San Diego border, in what began as a protest against slow-moving asylum claims, clearly included many violent people trying to injure federal agents.

Trump wasted no time in taking to Twitter yesterday morning: "Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries."

I don't know on what basis the president is claiming that "many" have a criminal history, but some clearly committed a crime on Sunday.

It was Trump's description of the caravan as an "invasion" that prompted CNN's Jim Acosta to debate him and refuse to give up the microphone, leading the White House to pull his credentials until they were restored by a federal judge.

I doubt the clash will do anything to break the partisan gridlock on this issue, especially with Democrats taking over the House.

The president and his allies are seizing on the violent incident to vindicate their view that illegal immigrants pose a threat to American safety. In his tweet, Trump said: "We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!"

But liberals and Latino activists are drawing a different lesson. A Los Angeles Times story said "the images of the U.S. government using tear gas on a group of migrants that included children disturbed others, who said it underscored the cruel approach of the Trump administration."

On that point, such action is not unprecedented. There was a similar incident in 2013, during the Obama administration, in which about 100 immigrants threw rocks and bottles at Border Patrol agents, who responded with pepper spray, in the same region.

There was a strange diplomatic dance over the weekend when The Washington Post in particular touted a deal between the administration and the incoming government of Mexico to keep asylum-seekers in that country during the application process. But then the Mexican transition officials backed off and said there had been no deal.

There will always be another caravan. What's clear is that this thorny and emotional issue is not going away, even though the latest election is over.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Violent caravan clash after media minimized Trump’s warnings

Well, I guess some people in the caravan were looking to make trouble after all.

The situation got out of control in Tijuana on Sunday as hundreds of migrants tried to evade Mexican police and ran toward a border crossing that leads to San Diego.

Customs officials shut down the border for hours and fired tear gas to push the migrants back. Some threw rocks at the American officers, a number of whom were hit, and the border was shut down for hours. Some 42 migrants were arrested on the U.S. side.

All in all, not a pretty picture.

The inevitable political question: Was President Trump right about the caravan?

The media depicted the president as shamelessly hyping the threat from the caravan, which started in Honduras, solely to rouse his base for the midterms.

Two things, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Trump did pound away at the caravan as part of an effort to make illegal immigration a major midterm issue. And most of the media treated the traveling migrants as sympathetic figures who didn't pose a threat to anyone.

The reality turned out to be more complicated. Not all the migrants were a threat, and many legitimately hoped to seek asylum from persecution or economic hardship. But the hundreds who stormed the San Diego border, in what began as a protest against slow-moving asylum claims, clearly included many violent people trying to injure federal agents.

Trump wasted no time in taking to Twitter yesterday morning: "Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries."

I don't know on what basis the president is claiming that "many" have a criminal history, but some clearly committed a crime on Sunday.

It was Trump's description of the caravan as an "invasion" that prompted CNN's Jim Acosta to debate him and refuse to give up the microphone, leading the White House to pull his credentials until they were restored by a federal judge.

I doubt the clash will do anything to break the partisan gridlock on this issue, especially with Democrats taking over the House.

The president and his allies are seizing on the violent incident to vindicate their view that illegal immigrants pose a threat to American safety. In his tweet, Trump said: "We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!"

But liberals and Latino activists are drawing a different lesson. A Los Angeles Times story said "the images of the U.S. government using tear gas on a group of migrants that included children disturbed others, who said it underscored the cruel approach of the Trump administration."

On that point, such action is not unprecedented. There was a similar incident in 2013, during the Obama administration, in which about 100 immigrants threw rocks and bottles at Border Patrol agents, who responded with pepper spray, in the same region.

There was a strange diplomatic dance over the weekend when The Washington Post in particular touted a deal between the administration and the incoming government of Mexico to keep asylum-seekers in that country during the application process. But then the Mexican transition officials backed off and said there had been no deal.

There will always be another caravan. What's clear is that this thorny and emotional issue is not going away, even though the latest election is over.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of “MediaBuzz” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz deletes tweet suggesting ‘chemical weapons’ used at US-Mexico border

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tweeted Sunday that the use of tear gas against Central American migrants who attempted to enter the U.S. illegally may have been a violation of international agreements governing the use of chemical weapons — before he backtracked.

The Associated Press reported that U.S. agents shot several rounds of the gas after migrants tried to penetrate several points along the border at the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana, Mexico, and California. Migrants sought to squeeze through gaps in wire, climb over fences and peel back metal sheeting to enter.

In response to the reports, Schatz initially tweeted: "Tear gas across the border against unarmed families is a new low." Approximately 45 minutes later, Schatz tweeted: "Who gave the order? Did it implement or contravene policy?" He then tweeted "WHO GAVE THE ORDER?" in all caps.

Schatz then asked: "Why tear gas? Is this consistent with the Conventions on Chemical Weapons?"

However, the tweet was posted for just a few minutes before it was deleted and replaced by this message: "Anyone uncomfortable with spraying tear gas on children is welcome to join the coalition of the moral and the sane. We can argue about other stuff when we’ve got our country back."

In an exchange with opinion writer Stephen Miller, Schatz admitted that "I went ahead and deleted the one about chemical weapons because I just don’t know enough about what happened." He then asked Miller: "Does this not strike you as excessive?"

A spokesman for Schatz did not respond to Fox News' requests for comment.

Schatz, a former Hawaii state representative and lieutenant governor, was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2012 to serve out Daniel Inouye's term after his death. Schatz was elected to his first full Senate term in 2016.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.