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No Criminal Justice Reform From Congress Before Election

The House's lack of action means opportunities are dwindling for an issue that advocates had high hopes of passing this year.
San Francisco Public Attorneys Hold \"Hands Up, Don't Shoot\" Demonstration
Protesters hold signs during a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" demonstration in front of the San Francisco Hall of Justice on December 18, 2014 in San Francisco, California to protest the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

In a huge disappointment to advocates, legislation to reform components of the criminal justice system will not come before the House adjourns this month as previously planned, according to two sources who have worked closely on the effort.

The House's lack of action means opportunities are quickly dwindling on an issue that advocates had high hopes of passing this year.

“It’s disappointing, but given the political climate it’s not surprising,” Mark Holden, chairman of the board of the Koch-backed Freedom Partners, a group who has been working to advance criminal justice reform, said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan had said earlier this year that he planned on bringing up criminal justice reform bills in September during the small window that Congress is in Washington between their August break and before they adjourn at the end of September to continue campaigning for re-election.

But that timing has proven difficult. It’s an election year just weeks before Election Day and risk-adverse lawmakers are reluctant take a difficult vote.

Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy's spokesperson, Matt Sparks, said the bill "won't be on the floor next week."

The House is scheduled to be in session for two more weeks but it's expected that they will take up the temporary government spending bill, known as the Continuing Resolution, and then adjourn.

Related: Donald Trump Challenging Criminal Justice Reform Efforts

"It's like a time warp or a tape delay," Holden said. "They still act like it's the 80s or 90s and it scares people politically."

During the 1980s and 1990s the violent crime rate peaked and politicians ran on a tough-on-crime platform that led to the explosion of the prison population that locks up two million Americans in federal prisons at a cost of $80 billion per year.

But Republican presidential candidate has revived the tough-on-crime language and promised to be the "law and order president," which has further complicated the politics of the issue.

The issue has garnered bipartisan support in Congress as groups on the left and the right of the ideological spectrum have been working with the Obama administration to pass reforms this year that would reduce the recidivism rate and change mandatory minimum sentences for low-level non-violent criminals.

A national day of action this week by groups on the left and the right of the ideological spectrum resulted in tens of thousands of phone calls, including 8,000 from one conservative group FreedomWorks alone, was unable to convince the House to act in the final days of the session.

Advocates are looking to the Lame Duck, the session after Election Day before the end of the year, for action, hoping that a post-election environment will help the cause.

Related: How the Ground Shifted on Criminal Justice Reform

But Lame Duck will be difficult because the legislation still has to pass both the House and the Senate, a huge feat in a slow-moving process.

Half a dozen bills have already passed the House Judiciary Committee and have bipartisan support, but the support it has among the conservative Freedom Caucus is uncertain, a threshold that is important to get a majority of Republicans to support the bill.

Some of the most liberal and most conservative members have come together to work on the issue, including Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah in the Senate and Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia in the House.