Dozens of groups lobby heavily on criminal justice reform bill

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(Photo caption: AlexVan/Pixabay)

With a Supreme Court vacancy and a heated election season, the issue of criminal justice remains front and center with candidates, voters, activists and, of course, Congress.

Over the past year, Congress has been debating a number of bills related to reforming the criminal justice system. This includes an effort to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which, among other things, would alter mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders and allow for more discretion on issuing sentences.

A large bipartisan coalition has sponsored the measure, which has the backing of several pro-reform groups. All in all, 28 different organizations have lined up to lobby on both sides of the bill.

This includes the U.S. Justice Action Network, which is supported by the Coalition for Public Safety, among others. The Coalition for Public Safety in turn gets its “core support” from Koch Industries, the MacArthur Foundation, the Arnold Foundation and the Ford Foundation. According to Sunlight’s Real-Time Lobbying Registrations, the Network’s chief lobbyist, Andrew Howard, is a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Additionally, the Koch brothers and their allies have been very public about their support for reforming the criminal justice system. In an interview with The Atlantic, Mark Holden, senior vice president for Koch Industries, touted the broad coalition in support of reform: “We haven’t had any doors shut in our face. We’re getting people to understand us who didn’t know us before.”

Despite this momentum, Politico noted that a group of conservative senators, led by Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, have lined up to oppose specifically the sentencing reform efforts. This puts various conservatives, at least in the Senate, oddly in opposition.

And lobbying interests are pulling out all the stops.

According to lobbying registration data from OpenSecrets, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA) has been one of the most vocal opponents of reform. According to its website, the group is dedicated to furthering the interest of federal prosecutors across the U.S.

Screenshot via NAAUSA.

In 2015, NAASUA paid Bruce Moyer, head of the Moyer Group, $60,000 to lobby on several bills, including the Corrections Act. According to an email obtained by the Sunlight Foundation, Moyer sent out a letter to Senate staff members urging opposition to the bill. Within the email was a letter co-signed by several prominent officials, including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Attorney General John Ashcroft. The letter opposed the bill and stated “significant risks to public safety.”

An email from lobbyist Bill Moyer to Senate staff members urging opposition to the Sentencing Reform Act. Click here for a larger version.
The groups looking to influence the legislation range from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to Starbucks to Gun Owners of America to the United Methodist Church.

Due to vague disclosure laws, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly how much these groups are spending to specifically influence the Sentencing Reform Act. But we do know these organizations are powerful players in Washington: Based on the best available data from OpenSecrets, up to $27 million was spent in 2015 by the 28 groups that either wholly or partially focused on influencing the Sentencing Reform Act.

This topic is not going away, and it’s unclear when this bill will move to a full vote in the Senate. Whether you’re betting for or against reform, the lobbying around this critical issue is only going to continue in a big way in 2016.