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 SessionsJeff SessionsPreet Bharara emailed DOJ about phone call from Trump: report Sessions backs LGBT Pride Month event Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump tweetstorm on Russia probe | White House reportedly pushing to weaken sanctions bill | Podesta to testify before House Intel MORE (R-Ala.), President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKobach fined over Trump meeting memo OPINION: Dear media, Americans don't care about Obama's legacy Make America’s classroom and workplaces safe again 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.

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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 GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's 12:30 Report GOP senator surprises top Dem with birthday cake 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 LeeMike LeeTrump tells Democrats they need ‘courage’ to fix ObamaCare Fifth GOP senator announces opposition to healthcare bill The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Utah), John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers want meeting with Trump administration to take US-Mexico border trade Rocky rollout for Senate healthcare bill The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (Texas), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Judiciary Committee to continue Russia probe after Mueller meeting MORE (S.C.), Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeSenate should seek to retain its 'blue slip' tradition for judicial nominees Progressives target Heller and Flake on Senate GOP bill The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (Ariz.) and Thom TillisThom R. TillisThe Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Lawmakers celebrate National Selfie Day on Twitter Navy leaders defend Trump's lackluster ship budget 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 DurbinDick DurbinDems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Live coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill Senate Dem offers patent reform bill 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 WhitehouseSenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference Judiciary Committee to continue Russia probe after Mueller meeting GOP hits the gas on ObamaCare repeal 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 CottonTom CottonOnly Congress can enable drone technology to reach its full potential Senate Dem offers patent reform bill Sasse: Someone subscribed me to Nickleback emails as a prank 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 PaulRand PaulTrump tells Democrats they need ‘courage’ to fix ObamaCare Fifth GOP senator announces opposition to healthcare bill The Hill's 12:30 Report 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.