Sen. Grassley: Criminal Justice Reform Still on the Table

Grassley says criminal justice reform still possible despite pushback from Trump administration

Sen. Chuck Grassley
Sen. Chuck Grassley / Getty Images
June 22, 2017

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) believes that his criminal justice reform agenda, unsuccessful under the Obama administration, still has bright prospects, in spite of the less reform-friendly administration of President Donald Trump.

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, spoke at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday morning about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), a bipartisan bill he first brought up in the last Congress.

Grassley hopes to revive the SRCA this year, Politico reported in January. The bill, sponsored by Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) among others, passed through committee in 2015 but stalled out on the floor due to opposition from Senate law-and-order conservatives.

The SRCA is intended as a corrective to the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, which Grassley characterized as a bipartisan driver of dropping crime rates. However, he said, "some of the changes made in the 1980 legislation went too far, or had consequences beyond what anybody expected at that particular time."

"Long prison sentences always come with a cost. A cost to the taxpayers, a cost to families, and to our communities," Grassley said. "In many ways, and in many cases, the severity of the crime justifies these costs. But as we're all aware, that isn't always the case. Hence, the movement for sentencing reform."

The SRCA is meant to address these concerns through a number of approaches, Grassley said. These include expanded "safety valves" for non-violent offenders; a reduction in mandatory minimums for some drug crimes; and a reduction in sentences for offenders who complete programs designed to reduce recidivation.

Grassley suggested that while the SRCA had the support of the Obama administration, the Trump White House, which has promised to "make America safe again," may be less friendly to the legislation.

"Obviously, the dynamic is different with a new president," Grassley said, but added that he was nonetheless "confident" about the SRCA's prospects.

"We're looking forward to input from the administration" on the SRCA, Grassley said. "We had the support of the Obama administration. I think we have a chance of getting the support of this administration."

"I know that there is both support and opposition within this White House," Grassley said. "I certainly believe that it is consistent to be tough on crime and still support sentencing reform."

"We've been working since November to see what avenues we can have to move this bill along, particularly working with the executive branch of government. I'm confident about its prospects," he said.

The Trump White House sees law and order as a priority. Its FY 2018 budget proposal spared many criminal justice agencies the cuts that are expected in other departments, including a boost in funding for border security.

Those in the administration sympathetic towards reform include presidential adviser Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law. In March, Kushner and Grassley met to discuss criminal justice reform.

In April, the New York Times reported that Kushner has been pushing his father-in-law to, "overhaul the criminal justice system, a goal that Mr. Trump embraced as a candidate near the end of the campaign when he tried to siphon black voters away from Hillary Clinton."

Nevertheless, Kushner has received pushback from Grassley's former colleague Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose tenure as attorney general has been defined by tough-on-crime stances.

In May, Sessions issued a memo instructing federal prosecutors to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," specifically those offenses with the most substantial guideline or mandatory sentences. This overturned the previous policy of Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, who gave prosecutors discretion to not charge certain drug crimes.

Grassley criticized Sessions's comments that the administration would go back to pre-Obama sentencing discretion.

"I'm not going to condemn people for finding fault with what Attorney General Sessions did when he spoke about going back to the pre-Obama, pre-Holder sentencing prosecutorial discretion that he gave to his U.S. Attorneys, that it was the wrong way to go. I could even say that I think it was the wrong way to go," he said.

Sessions opposed Grassley's bill when he was in the Senate. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Sessions "personally blocked" the 2015 SRCA; he also, along with several of his colleagues, authored one of a series of op-eds opposing the bill.

Sessions wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post in June in which he insisted more stringent sentencing was needed to curb surging violent crime. He also attacked those who claimed incarceration was driven largely by low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Grassley, however, said Sessions' priorities need not conflict with the SRCA.

"There doesn't have to be anything incompatible with what he's doing, with what we're trying to do, because what we do is give people that have been sentenced unfairly, and they feel it, and their lawyers feel it, another bite at the apple, by going before a judge to plead their case, that their sentence ought to be shorter," Grassley said.