Prison sentencing bill advances over Sessions objections
Legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders advanced in the Senate Thursday despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions strongly urging the committee to vote it down.
In a 16-5 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
The bill has bipartisan support and was also approved by the committee in the last Congress, but failed to get to the floor for a vote.
Sessions objected to the bill in a letter to committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Wednesday.
In the letter, obtained by The Hill, Sessions said the bill “would reduce sentences” for a “highly dangerous cohort of criminals,” and that passing it “would be a grave error.”
Grassley admonished Sessions during the markup, saying the former Alabama senator should have run for his old job if he wanted to legislate.
“Certainly we value input from the Department of Justice, but if [Attorney] General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama,” said Grassley, who broke from his prepared comments to note that the Sessions seat is now held by a Democrat.
Grassley said he was “really irritated” that Sessions sent the letter because of his own defense for the embattled attorney general. Grassley alluded to his work in the Sessions’s confirmation hearing, and the confirmations of others in the Justice Department, as well as what he said was his defense of Sessions when President Trump wanted to fire him.
“I don’t think that’s something somebody should do to friends,” he said of the letter.
The legislation approved by the panel reduces mandatory minimum penalties for nonviolent repeat drug offenders, eliminates the three-strike mandatory life in prison rule and gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum.
It creates new mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving interstate domestic violence and those charged with providing weapons and other defense materials to prohibited countries and terrorists. It also creates a new five-year sentencing enhancement for trafficking heroin laced with fentanyl.
Grassley and Sens. Dick Dubin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) spearheaded the legislation.
But a contingent of conservatives may again keep the bill from ever getting to the floor for a vote.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who co-sponsored the legislation in 2015, voted down the bill in committee Thursday.
Cornyn said there appears to be a better path forward for prison reform under the current administration than sentencing reform.
“I believe, as I said last week, that’s a subject upon which I think we can get a presidential signature and pass it into law,” he said.
Cornyn and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have introduced legislation to incentivize prison programming that’s shown to reduce recidivism rates.
The legislation would allow prisons who complete programs to serve the remainder of their sentence in a halfway house or home confinement. A similar bill has also been offered in the House by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.).
When Trump met with criminal justice reform advocates to discuss prison reform late last year, he said his administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.
A White House source told The Hill last month, “The administration strongly believes that prison reform is a conservative issue that will help reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars and has the potential to gain bipartisan support.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) also expressed doubt during Thursday’s markup that the bill will pass Congress and gain the support of the president, but ultimately voted in favor of sending it to the floor for a vote.
“My concern based on the discussion we’re having here and the sausage factory that occurs over on Capitol Hill is that we’re probably not going to produce an outcome, at least one that’s going to go to the president’s desk,” he said.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I think we do have to do some work to address the concerns on the sentencing piece.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the bill would have a better chance of passing Congress if it didn’t allow nonviolent offenders previously sentenced under mandatory minimums to petition the court for a review and reduction of their sentence. He offered an amendment to strike that provision.
Cruz said he fears the bill as written will give both nonviolent and violent offenders the chance to have their sentences retroactively reduced.
“If you want this bill to be more than a messaging press release, if you want this bill to actually to go into the United States code, particularly given that we have an administration and an Attorney Genera who have come out against it, I would suggest the way to maximize the chances of doing anything to fix the problem is to accept this amendment,” he said.
“Its chances of passing would rise dramatically.”
He voted against the bill after his amendment failed 15-6.
Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and John Kennedy (R-La.) also voted against the bill.
Updated at 1:20 p.m.