President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenate Dems offer 'corrected' version of WH press release on Trump's first 100 days Trump to meet with Australian prime minister next month Liberal group files complaint on Mar-a-Lago promotion MORE won’t close the door on criminal justice reform, but the path forward may be complicated by his campaign rhetoric and pick to lead the Department of Justice, advocates say.
With just two months left in the Obama administration and a budget still to pass, advocates agree there’s little hope of getting sentencing reform legislation to the floor for a vote in both chambers during the lame-duck session of Congress.
“I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned about Sessions as attorney general,” said Danyelle Solomon, who serves as the director of Progress 2050, a Center for American Progress project focused on diversity.
“There are a lot of concerns ... that he will be a barrier to data-driven, policy-driven reforms in this space," she said. "I think he creates a challenge."
Sessions voted against the Senate bill to reduce certain mandatory minimum prisons sentences when it came before the Senate Judiciary Committee over a year ago, leaving some worried that he'd be a barrier for reform moving forward.
But conservative criminal justice reforms advocates remain optimistic about Sessions, noting he authored the Drug Sentencing Reform Act in 2001 to decrease the amount of powder cocaine and increase the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
“Sessions isn’t monolithically opposed to reform, but he does demand a high standard for legislation that’s put in front of him,” said Derek Cohen, deputy director of Right on Crime.
With Sessions as attorney general, Cohen said lawmakers might hammer out better legislation that may actually reduce costs and recidivism rates.
Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director and co-founder of #Cut50, argued "there's a really strong conservative pull on this administration" to continue pushing for criminal justice reform.
Sloan is expecting reforms to focus more on re-entry, over-criminalization and initiatives in the private sector to get formerly incarcerated people back into the workforce.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteH.R. 1695: A vital first step towards Copyright Office modernization GOP lays out regulatory reform wish list As former Copyright Office leaders, we support an autonomous register of copyrights MORE (R-Va.) said in a statement to The Hill that he’s spoken to ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) about getting an early start on reform measures in the new Congress.
“I look forward to talking with President-elect Trump and his administration about the problems facing the criminal justice system and our ideas for reform,” he said.
"There is bipartisan agreement that many aspects of our criminal justice system need reform."
Goodlatte pointed to successes GOP governors have had in making reforms at the state level.
“It is my hope that this will be an issue we can all work on together in 2017,” he said.
Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, argued Trump has an opportunity to unite the country with criminal justice reform.
“Trump’s not married to any one ideology,” she said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be hopeful.”
Opponents of criminal justice reform, however, argue the door for criminal justice reform was never open to begin with.
Bill Otis, an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, claims reform never really had a chance of passing Congress when President Obama was in office and has even less of a chance under Trump.
The former federal prosecutor said advocates had a leg up with the support of the Obama administration and with that came a forum and resources.
“Now all that will disappear,” he said. “Trump ran explicitly as a law-and-order candidate. If he had a good word to say about reducing prison sentences, I didn’t hear it.”
Advocates are refusing to throw in the towel.
Last week, the partners of the U.S. Justice Action Network sent a letter to Trump encouraging him to make criminal justice reform a top priority in his first 100 days.
“We share your goal of enhancing public safety and encourage you to consider that, just as with energy policy, it requires an all-of-the-above strategy,” they wrote.
“That is, just as we recognize those who pose a danger to society must be behind bars, for many others such as addicts and those with mental illness public safety can best be advanced through treatment-based approaches.”