Senators Wrangle Hard Over This Year's Last Chance of Federal Sentencing Reform

Apr 29 2016

Senators Wrangle Hard Over This Year’s Last Chance of Federal Sentencing Reform

April 29th, 2016

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), is pushing to pass legislation aimed at widely restructuring prison sentencing, lowering federal sentencing guidelines for people convicted of non-violent crimes, most of them drug-related.

It’s likely the last chance this year to pass significant criminal justice reform before the summer break and the following elections shut down Capitol Hill. It’s also, according to Sen. Durbin, “the best chance in a generation to reform our federal drug sentencing law.”

Opposing politicians are currently wrangling hard over some very significant details of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Revisions to the bill announced on Thursday would keep the expanded relief for those accused of non-violent drug crimes—but they would exclude people convicted of violent crimes from the bill, and create a new mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving fentanyl, a powerful opioid that has recently been linked to overdose in the news.

The revisions are evidence of just the sort of “troubling” compromise that some on the Left, like University of Pennsylvania Professor of Political Science Marie Gottschalk, have warned about. Legislators, she writes, “are decreasing penalties in one area—such as drug crimes—in order to increase them in another area,” usually violent crimes. This fosters the “mistaken idea that it is easy to distinguish the [non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders] from the really bad guys.” In this case, the revisions are even increasing penalties on certain non-violent drug crimes based on the the latest scare, which would seem to repeat some of the worst mistakes of the War on Drugs.

Julie Stewart, founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the bill “was very modest to begin with, and Congress should be strengthening it, not weakening it.”

But the compromises, as intended, are appeasing and attracting support from a variety of more conservative influential groups—including, this week, the National District Attorney’s Association, which said the bill “strikes the appropriate balance between targeting the highest level drug traffickers plaguing our communities, while simultaneously decreasing crime rates and addressing the burgeoning prison population.”

The success of the bill depends on whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will bring it to the floor, and McConnell has said in the past that he planned to process appropriations bills for the next two-and-a-half months before Congress breaks for an extended summer recess.

Even if it does get to the floor, a group of Republican senators, including  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) and an advisor to Donald Trump, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala). remain opposed to the bill, saying that even with the revisions, it’s still too lax.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a Judiciary Committee member, claimed: “The idea that we are only allowing low-level criminals out of jail is a smoke screen. As currently written, this bill would put thousands of dangerous felons back on the streets early, potentially endangering our families and communities, and therefore I still cannot support it.”

House Republicans have also said that if Democrats want to reduce punishment for those convicted of drug-related crimes, then they want punishment eased for people accused of environmental and business crimes, in the form of increased burden for prosecutors in those cases.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-RI) said that wasn’t going to happen: “The idea that to this good effort we’re going to attach an effort that basically gives corporations carte blanche to violate laws that have been set up to protect the public simply because it’s hard to prove the state of mind of a corporate defendant, that is asking an awful lot,” Whitehouse said.

The bill now has 37 co-sponsors, and Whitehouse said there is a “strong expectation” that the bill will gain the support of the 60 senators required to pass through the Senate. And he doesn’t regret the concessions made to gain bipartisan support.

“There was a lot that was left on the cutting-room floor,” he said of the bill. “But I think it’s still a hell of a good movie.”

Movies, though, are fake. The consequences of being “tough on crime” are all too real.


[Image: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (left) (R-IA) shakes hands with ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) at a press conference last year where the bipartisan effort was announced.]