Despite Sessions Opposition, Grassley Sentencing Reform Bill Clears Committee

Fate of bill, which failed to get full vote in 2015, now uncertain in full Senate

Sen. Chuck Grassley
Sen. Chuck Grassley / Getty Images

Despite opposition from the Department of Justice and a number of Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) passed a crucial committee vote 16 to five on Thursday, with only Republicans dissenting.

The bill is the brainchild of Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.)—the pair reintroduced the SRCA last September. It is meant to reduce the number of offenders, approximately 190,000, held in the federal prison system, which in turn holds about nine percent of all prisoners nationwide. The SRCA accomplishes this via a number of reforms to federal sentencing laws, most notably cutting mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug and violent felonies.

Mandatory minimums have been attacked by opponents as unjust and not helpful for reducing crime rates, which makes them a prime target for senators wishing to reduce the federal prison population. An analysis from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) found that federal drug offenders who were charged with mandatory minimums faced average sentences twice as long as those not facing mandatory minimums. Half of all offenders were charged using mandatory minimums, the same analysis found.

In addition to cutting minimums, the bill applies some, although not all, of those reforms retroactively, as well as retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The bill's sentencing reform section also calls for an inventory of federal criminal offenses, a list that would likely be hundreds of thousands of items long.

The bill's sentencing reforms were among the reasons that five Republicans—Sens. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), John Cornyn (R., Texas), Ted Cruz (R., Texas), Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), and John Kennedy (R., La.)—opposed the bill. Cruz offered an amendment, defeated six to 15 in the committee, that would have made the bill apply prospectively rather than retroactively, and exempted violent offenders from the mandatory minimum reductions.

Without his amendment, Cruz said, he believed that the bill will not make it through the Senate. Such a failure would be a repeat performance of the last time the SRCA was before that body. Although the bill made it out of committee in 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) refused to allow it a floor vote, thanks in large part to pressure from then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.).

Sessions, now attorney general, strongly opposed the new iteration of the SRCA in a letter to Grassley, sent Wednesday. Sessions cited many of the same concerns voiced by Cruz, including the weakening of penalties for violent offenders and drug traffickers, as well as the bill's retroactivity. Notably, recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that as of 2016, "more than 99 percent" of federal drug offenders were incarcerated for trafficking charges (as opposed to, for example, charges of possession).

"Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation's history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences," Sessions wrote.

Grassley, who intends to "twist Trump's arm for criminal justice reform," Axios reported earlier this week, took to Twitter to express his outrage at Sessions's letter.

"Incensed by Sessions letter An attempt to undermine Grassley/Durbin/Lee BIPARTISAN criminal justice reforms This bill deserves thoughtful consideration b4 my cmte. AGs execute laws CONGRESS WRITES THEM!," Grassley wrote in his characteristic Twitter style.

The clash between Sessions and Grassley is indicative of a larger fight over what form any criminal justice reform ought to take. President Donald Trump, in his State of the Union Address, called for prison reform, an agenda item which has long been a focus of his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Such reform would focus primarily on improving reentry into society with the goal of reducing recidivism: The USSC found in 2016 that almost half of all federal offenders reoffend within eight years of release. Such reforms are a part of the SRCA too, which largely incorporates Sen. Cornyn's CORRECTIONS Act.

But, while the White House might be open to that half of the SRCA, Cornyn believed the mandatory minimum reductions would be too bitter a pill for the Trump administration to swallow. In justifying his no vote, Cornyn called for a narrower bill that could actually get through Congress and to the president's pen.

"I want to participate in a process that will result in a criminal justice bill being signed into law," Cornyn said. "Call it a concession to the brevity of life."

But not all were so pessimistic. Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), one of the Senate’s more conservative voices, has consistently backed the SRCA, seeing it as a way to restore public confidence in the justice system.
"Law enforcement works best and the public is best protected when communities have faith in the criminal justice system and believe the sentences that system issues are fair. Today, the Senate took a huge step towards improving public faith in the criminal justice system by passing the Sentencing and Corrections Act out of the Judiciary Committee," Lee said in a statement to the Free Beacon.