Are White House, Sessions split on sentencing reform?

Aug 02 2017

Are White House, Sessions split on sentencing reform?

Throughout his public career as an Alabama state legislator, prosecutor, U.S. Senator and now Attorney General, Jeff Sessions has been an enthusiastic supporter of the so-called “war on drugs,” and harsher sentences for all types of drug-related offenses. But it appears that Sessions may not have the support of the Trump White House in calling for stricter penalties.

Since taking office, Sessions has sought to reverse the policy of his predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, who directed prosecutors to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. The Obama administration had made a priority of limiting or reversing mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which critics say were used disproportionately against minorities and led to massive prison overcrowding.

In May, Sessions issued a memo to federal prosecutors, calling on them to push for the “most serious” charges against people, and supporting a return to mandatory minimum drug sentences. The memo rescinded instructions the Obama administration gave to federal prosecutors, telling them to reduce the sentences of drug offenders serving long sentences.

The Sessions memo is part of his opposition to the recent, bipartisan movement to end harsh sentencing practices, reduce prison populations and focus on rehabilitating drug offenders. Sessions’ move drew strong criticism from sentencing reform advocates, like Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
“This is a disastrous move that will increase the prison population, exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and do nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety,” Collins said in a statement. “Sessions is taking the country back to the 1980s by escalating the failed policies of the drug war.”

In recent weeks, Sessions has been one of President Donald Trump’s favorite verbal targets, as Trump has publicly expressed his frustration over the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation. Sessions’ action helped set the stage for the current, special counsel investigation of Trump and associates.
Trump told the New York Times he would not have nominated Sessions to be attorney general had he known the former Alabama senator would recuse himself. Trump has also used his Twitter platform to criticize Sessions for not conducting a thorough investigation of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump’s attacks have led to speculation Trump might replace Sessions.

Collins says the “rupture” between the White House and Sessions’s Department of Justice has begun to manifest itself in another way. According to Collins, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser has been holding informal meetings with members of Congress to discuss criminal justice reform. Collins told The Influence that the family ties which have played such a prominent role in Trump’s White House dealings are a factor here, also.
Kushner has a personal interest in reforming – i.e., softening – federal sentencing guidelines because of his own father’s experience as a convicted and jailed felon. Jared’s father, realtor Charles Kushner, was convicted in 2005 and sent to prison for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering after he tried to blackmail his brother-in-law by hiring a prostitute to seduce him and then sent the videotaped encounter to his sister.

“Jared Kushner has an appetite to get behind some sort of criminal justice reform, so he is at-odds with Sessions,” Collins says. “The White House has been looking around for bipartisan issues they can advance, and sentencing reform is one of them. Kushner takes the issue personally because his father was incarcerated.”

Collins says he is not sure where the talks will lead, but he is not optimistic that Kushner’s efforts will lead to some sort of legislation being proposed, largely because of Sessions and his department’s current push for stricter sentences. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”