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Why are bureaucrats undermining the president on criminal justice?

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Justice Department bureaucrats have been quietly working to undermine President Trump and Congress by obstructing federal criminal justice reforms. It is not surprising, and it is not the first time. But it is a shame.

I had the privilege of meeting Catherine Toney, one of the first women freed under the First Step Act, the groundbreaking prison and sentencing reform legislation signed into by President Trump last year. She had spent the day on Capitol Hill thanking members of Congress for supporting the bill that freed her. We had a celebratory dinner together, along with several other advocates and members of her own family, including her granddaughter. The very next night, she was invited to the White House.

It all seemed too good to be true. Just weeks before, Catherine had been sitting in prison, serving out a decades long sentence for a drug crime. She is one of more than 3,000 Americans so far released from prison under the First Step Act. This bipartisan achievement for Congress and the White House aims to free more Americans from the brutal cycle of incarceration that has plagued this country for far too long, wasting both taxpayer dollars and failing to give us the public safety return we deserve.

Catherine is reunited with her family, has secured a job, and is moving on with her life. But for others, the journey to freedom is not over. Despite the bipartisan vote in Congress and strong support from President Trump, Justice Department bureaucrats insist on undermining these efforts.

The Justice Department, according to various reports, is inexplicably spending taxpayer resources trying to find ways of bringing some of the prisoners released under the First Step Act back into federal custody. An investigation by Reuters found dozens of instances in which the Justice Department argued against releasing these prisoners early, usually basing their new cases on some technicality like “the total amount of drugs that were found to be involved during the investigation, rather than the often smaller or more vague amount laid out in the law they violated years ago.”

It is no secret that the Justice Department zealously opposed the First Step Act, but I remained hopeful when its officials promised to fully and faithfully implement the law. I applauded when they had issued progress reports on each of the provisions of the First Step Act. But never once in these reports nor anywhere else did the Justice Department publicly disclose their plan to direct prosecutors to oppose release petitions.

Fortunately, most of those attempts to keep these individuals behind bars, or to reincarcerate them after the fact, have been struck down by federal judges. But that is not stopping obstructionists within Justice Department ranks from continuing to thwart the will of President Trump, the will of Congress, and the will of the people to implement the First Step Act.

The Justice Department has long acted on an island, separate from the administration and accountable to no one. The surreptitious obstruction of First Step is just the latest in a long line of unilateral actions aimed at undermining badly needed reforms to our broken criminal justice system. Others questionable federal actions include reopening for profit prisons, directing prosecutors to charge all defendants with the highest provable offenses, and eliminating the investigations of police departments that repeatedly violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect.

Predictably, the latest obstruction of the popular First Step Act is not sitting well with leaders on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois told Reuters, “The notion that the Department of Justice is just going to keep nagging at them and appealing these cases is not what we have ever had in mind.” Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah likewise told the Washington Post, “It would be a shame if the people working under the president failed to implement the bill as written.”

President Trump certainly cannot be happy with the obstruction from the Justice Department. When he stood on stage with Catherine and other newly freed Americans at the White House, he made his intentions clear when he said, “My administration intends to fully fund and implement this historic law.” President Trump later committed to taking a second key legislative step toward reform, and even asked some of the people he helped free from prison for a list of names for clemency consideration.

In the face of this obstruction, Congress may finally be willing to push back hard against Justice Department attempts to act as a fourth branch of government. Too many are invested in the success of the First Step Act to overlook attempts to undermine it. I urge the leaders in the House and Senate to vigorously exercise their oversight authority over an institution that has operated on an island for far too long, and ensure that their own groundbreaking efforts to restore some justice to a broken system is not thwarted by the very officials who pledged to faithfully implement it.

Holly Harris is the executive director of the Justice Action Network.

Tags Congress Crime Donald Trump Government Justice President Prison Reform

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