Last night, the Senate approved our criminal justice reform package by a vote of 27-10 – a major milestone in an effort that goes back over 20 years for me. I’m very grateful for the hard work that all of my colleagues and our staff team did to get to yes.
The night before the debate, I lay awake wondering if we might somehow fail to come together around the complex package. I was not sure we had the support we needed and I was not sure how the package might win or lose support as it evolved through the day of debate.
Criminal justice reform is intrinsically controversial. Most of us have enough awareness to have opinions about criminal justice, but we all tend to be touching different parts of the elephant. The perspective of a crime victim may be very different from the perspective of someone with a relative who has been incarcerated.
Criminal lawyers – defense attorneys and prosecutors — bring a lot of important expertise to the conversation but, by long habit, they tend to state their views in the strongest possible terms, leaving legislators struggling to figure out where truth and balance really lie. A strong critical letter signed by 9 of the state’s 11 district attorneys raised tensions about the bill in the days coming up to the debate.
When a bill comes up for consideration, legislators can propose amendments to it in advance. Senators proposed 162 amendments before the debate began. Some of those amendments would dial back on the reforms designed to “lift people up instead of locking them up.” Other amendments would strengthen those reforms.
The Senate is pretty evenly balanced on criminal justice issues and I really did not know how the votes on the most controversial amendments would break. I could easily imagine amendments being approved that reduced support for the bill.
As I lay awake the night before, it didn’t seem likely that we would actually fail to pass the bill, but I had no confidence that we would reach the magic 27 number. 27 is the number of votes necessary to override a gubernatorial veto.
Through the day, we had close vote after close vote on major amendments – in most instances, the pro-reform position prevailed, but often by only one or two votes.
While debate continued on the major issues, legislators and staff moved around the chamber working out details on less controversial adjustments. We did not break for dinner until 7:30PM, but at that time there were 100 amendments still unresolved.
Through the dinner break a few of us worked to reach agreements on as many of the less controversial issues as possible, so that when we reconvened we could move quickly. It nonetheless took until 1:30AM to finish the job and I had no idea until the end of the process what the final vote would be.
This was by far the largest, most complex piece of legislation that I have carried and I now appreciate in a way that I never appreciated before the intensity of the team work that needs to happen to get major legislation done. I finished the day feeling enormous gratitude towards my colleagues and all the dozens of staff professionals involved.
The journey ahead remains long. The House needs to get through their own debate on reform – more arduous because the body is four times larger. Then we need to successfully negotiate the differences between the House and Senate approaches to reform.