Under pressure from a bipartisan coalition of criminal justice reform advocates, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday he is willing to consider some cuts to federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, but that across-the-board cuts were off the table.
Speaking at a press conference at the National Press Club, Grassley addressed questions of whether he would use his power as Senate Judiciary chairman to block sentencing reform bills, such as the Smarter Sentencing Act.
"Over the last several months I’ve been accused of being a road block to sentencing reform," Grassley said in his prepared remarks. "Let me be clear. I have told my colleagues and the White House that I’d like to sit down and talk about how we can move forward. I’m ready to address some of these issues. What I’m not willing to do is an across the board cut in mandatory minimums. I agree that some should be cut. But, I also think that some should be raised. "
"With a heroin epidemic strangling some of our communities, and white collar criminals getting paltry sentences, the last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys," Grassley continued.
Grassley also said he is introducing legislation to improve the treatment and oversight of detained juveniles. Grassley said he is interested in addressing other criminal justice issues such as asset forfeiture, indigent defense and Sixth Amendment protections, and employment challenges faced by those with arrest records.
An unprecedented group of liberal and conservative organizations and activists—led by political heavyweights such as the Center for American Progress and Koch Industries—have thrown their efforts behind criminal justice reform in recent years, and many see 2015 as a do-or-die year for legislative reform. However, the rise of Grassley, a law-and-order conservative, to the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee has worried reform advocates.
Last week, more than 100 Iowa faith leaders sent Grassley a letter urging him to take up broad sentencing reform.
"Our ministries call us to comfort and serve those harmed by crime, support accountability, rehabilitation, and restoration for those who offend and counsel families experiencing the painful outcomes of crime," the letter states. "From this vantage point, we have come to recognize the need for fundamental changes to the nation’s justice system and recognize that your leadership is critical to advancement."
Additionally, 18 conservative and evangelical leaders such as Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, and FreedomWorks’ Matt Kibbe, sent Grassley a similar letter last week:
"Punishment should be proportionate to the offense, and should aim to restore all parties impacted by crime and incarceration," the letter reads. "The current base mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses are not achieving these goals and have resulted in men and women serving excessive sentences at the expense of families, communities, and all American taxpayers. This disproportionate punishment violates our values of liberty and justice and is detrimental to family and community flourishing."