Justice reform a sticking point between Sessions and Senate GOP


Debate over criminal justice reform threatens to divide Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President-elect Donald Trump’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.

{mosads}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 Grassley (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 Lee (Utah), John Cornyn (Texas), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (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 Durbin (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 Whitehouse (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 Cotton (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 Paul (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.

Tags Chuck Grassley Confirmation hearings Dick Durbin Donald Trump Jeff Flake Jeff Sessions John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Rand Paul Sheldon Whitehouse Thom Tillis Tom Cotton

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