Sentencing reform may be political roadkill



The Register’s Editorial

Published 5:45 p.m. CT May 19, 2017 | Updated 32 minutes ago

Reform hasn’t been backed by Trump or Sessions

Sen. Chuck Grassley wasn’t always a believer in sentencing reform.

But in 2016, Grassley helped lead the fight in the U.S. Senate to approve new laws that would reduce the penalties for nonviolent drug offenses and give judges greater leeway in sentencing.

Then came the 2016 election in which Grassley, predictably, supported his party’s nominee, Donald Trump. Even after the release of the Access Hollywood video, in which Trump boasted of his sexual exploits, Grassley backed the nominee, saying, “You stop to think, there’s only a few saints who have been president of the United States.”

And when a victorious Trump nominated one of Grassley’s Republican colleagues in the Senate, Jeff Sessions, to serve as the attorney general of the United States, Grassley again voiced his support.

Now it appears that the sentencing-reform bill Grassley has championed is in trouble.

While still a senator, Sessions worked both openly and behind the scenes to block the passage of sentencing reform. And now, as the head of the U.S. Department of Justice, Sessions has issued a written order to federal prosecutors demanding a more aggressive approach to their work and insisting they pursue the toughest penalties allowed under the law.

The order overturns former attorney general Eric Holder’s policy of having federal prosecutors avoid charging low-level defendants with offenses that would lead to long, mandatory-minimum sentences.

ANOTHER VIEW: Trump administration is clueless on criminal justice

At a time when most Democrats and many Republicans agree that America is incarcerating too many of its citizens and that mandatory-sentencing laws have resulted in prison terms that are grossly disproportionate to the offenses committed, Sessions wants to turn back the calendar to 1980 and revive the war on drugs.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to Grassley or his fellow senators. When Sessions appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Grassley, as part of his confirmation hearings, he was asked to explain his past support for executing people who had twice been convicted of dealing marijuana.

Sessions smiled and claimed he couldn’t recall taking such a position. “Well, I’m not sure under what circumstances I said that,” he testified. “But I don’t think that sounds like something I would normally say. I will be glad to look at it.”

If he “looked at it,” Sessions would see that in 1996, while serving as Alabama’s attorney general, he actively supported a controversial bill that sought to establish mandatory death sentences for second-offense drug trafficking.

To his credit, Sessions has worked to eliminate some of the sentencing disparities that result in longer prison terms for minorities, but he remains a firm believer in mandatory-minimum sentences.

In fact, Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who has helped push for reform, says Sessions has been “the No. 1 opponent of the bipartisan effort in the Senate to reduce mandatory minimums for low-level nonviolent drug offenses.”

So where does this leave sentencing reform?

Early this year, Grassley said sentencing reform would “be one of the legislative bills I plan to bring up early on” this session, pointing out that it “cleared the committee with a broad bipartisan majority in the last Congress, and I don’t expect that to change.”

But few Republicans in Congress seem eager to pursue it now that the president and his attorney general are moving in the opposite direction and have positioned themselves as advocates for even stiffer criminal penalties.

If his ambitious sentencing-reform bill fails to become law in 2017, Sen. Grassley can thank the two Republicans he supported so enthusiastically this past year.

 

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