White House deals blow to Grassley's criminal justice bill

White House deals blow to Grassley's criminal justice bill
© Greg Nash

The White House on Tuesday said it sees no path forward for legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences, instead throwing its support behind measures aimed at reducing recidivism rates.

"The conclusion we reached was that, at this time, it's appropriate for us to go forward with prison reform," a senior administration official said.

The White House's position represents a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees Democrats fret over GOP changes to Mueller bill Let Robert Mueller do his job MORE (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor by a 16-5 vote earlier this month over the objections of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions defends Trump’s power to pardon without consulting Justice Dept GOP senator: 'We were there' on immigration before talks got derailed Sessions defends census citizenship question as 'common sense' MORE and a few GOP members on the committee.  

Sessions, who has taken a tough-on-crime approach to his job as the nation’s top law enforcement official, warned Grassley in a letter before the committee vote that advancing the bill “would reduce sentences” for a “highly dangerous cohort of criminals.” Passing the bill, he wrote, “would be a grave error."

Grassley was furious. He said the former Alabama senator should have run for his old Senate seat if he wanted to legislate.  

But Grassley's bill has once again been met by opposition from some conservatives who are concerned about reducing mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent repeat drug offenders and giving current prisoners the ability to apply for shorter sentences. 

A senior White House official said the administration respects Grassley’s efforts, but sees no path forward for sentencing reform.

"The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done," the official said. "And so what we see now is an environment where the prison reform does have enough support to get done. And we think that by maybe doing this in smaller bits and pushing the prison reform now, we think this has a better chance of getting done." 

A second official said the White House is instead focused on prison reform legislation like Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsHouse unanimously passes Music Modernization Act Overnight Tech: Apple's Tim Cook meets Trump at White House | Zuckerberg sticking with Facebook's ad model | Kanye West wants sitdown with Apple, Google execs | House Judiciary delays markup of prison reform bill MORE's (R-Ga.) bipartisan Prison Reform and Redemption Act. 

That bill, co-sponsored by nine Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates.

Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment. 

"I think that that is a good basis that we can look at and start with," the second senior White House official said of Collins's bill. “I do think that as the conversation continues over the coming weeks, there might be additions, changes, amendments, and we want to go through the regular order committee processes. But I do think that that's a big piece of legislation to look at as a starting point."  

A source familiar with the talks with the White House told The Hill in January that Collins’s bill is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April.

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees Republicans want Trump’s VA nominee to withdraw Senators to Trump: Let Mueller finish Russia probe MORE (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseEPA security chief worked for tabloid owner linked to Trump: report Overnight Energy: Pruitt proposes rule targeting 'secret science' | Dems probe Pruitt's security chief | FAA bill provisions could strip endangered species protections Dems say Pruitt security chief’s authorization for side job is invalid MORE (D-R.I.) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said the chairman is focused on passing sound policy, not the path of least resistance.

"Bipartisan support continues to grow in the Senate for comprehensive criminal justice reform, which includes providing additional discretion for judges at sentencing for lower level, non-violent drug crimes," he said.

"Chairman Grassley’s broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is cosponsored by nearly a quarter of the Senate. Our office continues to have productive conversations with the White House on this issue.”

A senior White House official said President Trump is planning to sign an executive order Wednesday to revamp the Federal Reentry Council and move it from the Department of Justice to the White House.

Under the Obama administration, the interagency council worked to reduce recidivism and improve employment, education, housing, health and child welfare outcomes, according to the Department of Justice website.

The White House said Tuesday it sent a list of legislative principles for reform efforts to Congress. In addition to effectively using government resources to reduce crime and incentivize re-entry programs, the White House wants Congress to expand access to prison work programs. It also wants lawmakers to evaluate and facilitate public and private partnerships that improve pre- and post-release employment opportunities for inmates. 

A senior White House official said the administration wants prison to be seen as a place where people are being rehabilitated and given a second chance rather than warehoused for doing something wrong.

Updated: 7:30 p.m.