Justice reform a sticking point between Sessions and Senate GOP

Justice reform a sticking point between Sessions and Senate GOP
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Debate over criminal justice reform threatens to divide Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsHouse Dem moves to force vote on bill protecting Mueller Toobin goes off on Dershowitz for ‘carrying water’ for Trump Overnight Regulation: Groups sue over decision to end pay-data rule | EU proposes tax on tech companies | Sessions issues memo on death penalty for drug cases | Pruitt spent 5K on first class flights MORE (R-Ala.), President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse expected to vote on omnibus Thursday afternoon House passes 'right to try' drug bill Spending bill rejects Trump’s proposed EPA cut MORE’s pick to serve as attorney general, and Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans who will review his nomination this week. 

Republicans expect the issue to come up at Sessions’s confirmation hearings, scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday, but are trying to downplay the differences within the party as the Alabama senator faces intense Democratic opposition.

“Somebody will bring it up,” a GOP aide predicted when asked whether Sessions would be questioned about his position on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act during his confirmation hearings.

Sessions’s hard-line stance on crime has put him at odds with some fellow GOP senators, and he could be poised for a future conflict with Republicans if he is confirmed as attorney general.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley on Trump calling Putin: 'I wouldn't have a conversation with a criminal' Lawmakers zero in on Zuckerberg GOP senator blocking Trump's Intel nominee MORE (R-Iowa) wants to move the controversial criminal justice reform bill — which divides the Republican conference — early this year, after Sessions and an expected Supreme Court nominee are confirmed.

As head of the Justice Department, Sessions would have significant say over how any new laws are implemented. 

Sessions does not support reducing long sentences for non-violent crimes and was one of only five members of the Judiciary panel to vote against the legislation when it passed the committee in October of 2015.

He argued at the time that the bill faced opposition from various law enforcement groups such as the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the FBI Agents Association.

He warned that the nation was in the middle of a “crime wave,” noting an increase in murders in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Houston and New York.

“Violent crime and murders have increased across the country at almost alarming rates in some areas, and drug use and overdoses are occurring and dramatically increasing,” he said. “It is against this backdrop that we are considering a bill to cut prison sentences for drug traffickers and even other violent criminals, including those currently in federal prison.”

Trump made similar arguments during the campaign in a bid to win over African-American voters in crime-addled cities, whom he said had not been helped by Democratic policies. Sessions's views on sentencing put him comfortably in line with Trump's promises to restore "law and order" throughout the nation. 

The Brennan Center for Justice reports that drug cases made up a high percentage of Sessions’s convictions when he served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama before being elected to the Senate in 1996.

But several Republican members of the Judiciary Committee voted for the bill that would give judges more flexibility in sentencing low-level drug offenders.

Grassley touted the bill at the time for “addressing over-incarceration concerns and working to reduce recidivism.”

Republican Sens. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps Senate sides with Trump on providing Saudi military support Senate, Trump clash over Saudi Arabia MORE (Utah), John CornynJohn CornynWhite House officials expect short-term funding bill to avert shutdown Spending bill delay raises risk of partial government shutdown support GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone MORE (Texas), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDems aim to turn ObamaCare hikes into election weapon Steyer brings his push to impeach Trump to town halls across the nation Trump formally sends Pompeo nomination to Senate MORE (S.C.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeNearly 70 percent say Trump is a bad role model for children: poll GOP lawmaker: 'We might need to build a wall between California and Arizona' Steyer brings his push to impeach Trump to town halls across the nation MORE (Ariz.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone North Carolina GOP previously hired Cambridge Analytica: report Senate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed MORE (N.C.), all members of the Judiciary Committee, co-sponsored the legislation. 

If Republicans don’t want to expose a rift with Trump’s choice for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer during his hearings, then Democrats, who are trying to drive a wedge between the new administration and GOP lawmakers, could push the conversation. Democrats are also likely to hammer Sessions over past allegations of racist comments, which he has denied, that tanked his 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship. 

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone Water has experienced a decade of bipartisan success Trump vows tougher borders to fight opioid epidemic MORE (Ill.), the lead Democratic sponsor of the legislation, asked Sessions about his stance on the justice reform issue during a private meeting last week.

“During the meeting with Sen. Sessions, [Durbin] raised a number of issues including criminal justice reform that he wanted answers on and said he would bring it up again during the hearings,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Republicans may try to tiptoe around their differences with Sessions on the issue of sentencing reform — Lee, who worked with Durbin on the portion of the bill addressing mandatory minimum sentences, is not expected to grill Sessions on that thorny policy question. Instead, GOP senators may set up a line of questioning that emphasizes common ground.

Cornyn, a leading voice on criminal justice reform, will likely focus on the portion of the bill he crafted with Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseOvernight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps Overnight Energy: EPA plans to restrict use of science data for regs | Pruitt's Italy trip cost more than K | Perry insists he's staying at Energy Senate sides with Trump on providing Saudi military support MORE (D-R.I.) addressing programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

The Corrections Act drafted by Cornyn and Whitehouse would require the Bureau of Prisons to provide programs such as drug abuse treatment and vocational training to convicts nearing parole to reduce the chances of them committing future crimes.

That portion of criminal justice reform has more support from conservatives such as Sessions and Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonProtecting American innovation Russian spy poisoning brings world powers closer to day of reckoning GOP senators see Tillerson ouster as the new normal MORE (R-Ark.), who last year criticized the broader Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act as the “criminal leniency bill.”

While Cotton opposes the reform bill that passed the committee, he told colleagues last year “we are not in full disagreement.” 

“Like you, I believe that those prisoners who will someday complete their sentences and reenter society should be given a chance to rehabilitate and redeem themselves while in prison so they do not commit additional new crimes once they are out of prison,” he said on the floor.

Senate GOP aides expect that Sessions, like Cotton, will be more amenable to the portion of the bill Cornyn is likely to discuss at the hearing.

Reducing stiff jail sentences for people convicted of non-violent drug crimes is gaining more support among Republican voters. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulHouse poised to vote on .3T spending bill Overnight Finance: Lawmakers race to finalize omnibus | What we know about funding bill | White House on board | Fed raises rates for first time under Powell Senate passes controversial online sex trafficking bill MORE (R-Ky.) often discussed what he viewed as unreasonable punishments during his 2016 campaign for the presidency.

California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana.