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Democrats Block JUSTICE in the Senate

Senate Democrats alone blocked the potential for the full Senate to move to consider the Just and Unifying Solutions To Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act, S. 3985, before breaking for Independence Day recess this year. Introduced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in an effort to address policing reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd which spurred protests and riots across the country, the JUSTICE Act would make small strides toward holding police accountable.

This bill, considered Senate Republicans’ policing reform bill, would create databases to track data and information on the use of force and no-knock raids by law enforcement, incentivize the elimination of chokeholds by limiting access to federal grants, create a new grant program for body cameras, require law enforcement to maintain disciplinary records, make lynching a federal crime, create a commission to review the social status of African-American men and boys, and create a national commission on criminal justice.

To be clear, Senate Republicans’ policing reform bill does not do nearly enough in the way of reform and entirely avoids tougher issues such as qualified immunity and police militarization, making it overall a weak bill in terms of real reform. However, this is simply no excuse to turn criminal justice reform into just another partisan issue and resultantly oppose even moving to begin consideration of the bill, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) successfully called for his conference to do.

In fact, their move was shameful. All except for two Senate Democrats voted against cloture on the motion to proceed to the legislation, expressing not only opposition to the bill itself but even to the prospect of considering the legislation on the floor. As Sen. Scott said after this vote failed, “I finally realized what the problem is. The actual problem is not what is being offered. It is who is offering it.”

Instead of prioritizing partisan politics over policy change, members on both sides of the aisle should work together to modify the existing bill and add positive reforms to it, such as reforms to qualified immunity like those proposed by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) in his recently-introduced S. 4036 and to the Department of Defense’s 1033 program as historically led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in order to reasonably scale back militarization of law enforcement.

As we saw throughout the process of the First Step Act moving through Congress and into law in 2018, it is often an effective strategy to advance a starting bill to the floor that not all parties are completely satisfied with. Allowing the ensuing negotiations and amendment processes geared toward modifying and strengthening the bill to take place enables all members to have a seat at the table in real bipartisan fashion and sets up the process for successful passage of a better bill.

This process cannot play out when partisan actors in the Senate prevent their chamber from even beginning consideration of the JUSTICE Act. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that she hopes to see the chambers go to conference with their respective bills. As it became clear that the cloture vote was going to fail, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) changed his “yes” vote to a “no,” in order to make available a motion to reconsider the vote at a later time. This, or something similar, should certainly happen as soon as possible.

While we actually do not wish to see either chamber’s bills become the final product of real and necessary legislation on the heels of tragedy in our nation, we do wish to see a final product in policing reform. Should partisan actors continue to throw wrenches into this process for political ends, there will be no final product, and that is an end result we cannot afford at a moment like this.