A two-part prison reform measure, originally suggested by liberals but also, surprisingly, backed by conservatives, is on the table. There is only one thing standing in the way. White House “reefer madness” mentality.
Lawmakers are afraid that insisting on both points of their proposal will end up costing them the one part they are virtually guaranteed.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump won’t agree to “reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.” They are adamant in their puritanical insistence that drugs are not “recreation.”
The head of the Justice Department doubled down on justifying his hysterical cannabis crack-down at a Heritage Foundation speech.
While appearing at a conservative think tank event celebrating the life of Ronald Reagan, famous for ramping up “America’s War on Drugs,” Sessions made some bold remarks.
“We don’t think illegal drug use is ‘recreation.’”
“Lax enforcement, permissive rhetoric, and the media have undermined the essential need to say no to drug use.”
“Don’t start. That’s what President Trump said to us the other day in a meeting. What did Nancy Reagan say? Just say no. Don’t start this stuff.”
The administration is fully behind the proposals “to ease re-entry for prisoners,” contained in the first part of the plan but the call for reducing sentences is a deal breaker for the White House.
Both sides of the aisle slugged it out and came up with solutions all could agree on in 2015. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee spent some time bringing those suggestions together and getting them up to date.
With Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) at the helm, the committee has hammered together a long overdue compromise prison reform bill Thursday that both sides are happy with.
Chairman Grassley scheduled the bill for “markup” next week. That is what congressional committees call it when they debate, amend, and rewrite proposed laws.
The hard work has already been done and the measure is expected to clear out of the committee into general Senate debate with no difficulty.
Supporters are certain that the legislation would “would pass the Senate with a bipartisan supermajority if brought to the floor” and would be seen as a huge victory for the Senate. Even the advocacy groups can get behind the bill.
Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Senate Majority Leader, shelved the previous edition of the proposal “because of opposition to the sentencing section from law enforcement groups and some Republican senators,” John Cornyn (R-Texas) mentioned in Thursday’s hearing.
The Majority Whip doesn’t “see a path forward this year” either for the full version of the deal and is ready to hang it up again already.
Cornyn is afraid they will come up empty-handed. “I know we all tried to work together on this and it just didn’t work out.”
“I’m worried that if we just revisit the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which failed during the Obama administration, given this change in the new administration and its views on the sentencing reform component of it, we’re going to have nothing to show for our efforts.”
Instead, Cornyn said the committee’s best opportunity to move a criminal justice bill would be stripped down legislation.
A solution co-sponsored by Cornyn with Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) focuses on the prisoner transition to work and independence provisions. Cornyn suggests using it to get the ball rolling, then “building on that as we can” through floor amendments.
Once in a debate on the Senate floor, changes to include sentencing provisions could be tacked on.
Chairman Grassley prefers unifying around the combined package bill. He feels it would be the best way to get both the sentencing and the prison provisions that everyone on the committee is determined to have.
“It’s a matter of process and around here nothing gets done unless it’s bipartisan,” Grassley said. “I don’t often agree with Sen. Durbin, but we put together a bill that we worked on really hard and we think it’s the only way of advancing both bills.”
There was a lot of concern that strip and amend later tactics would only be a big circle detour back to the same place, “if the prison bill gets to the floor and then a supermajority of senators add the sentencing portion back in with an amendment.”
The stealthy tactic could easily backfire too. Senator Grassley pointed out that individual senators may try to block the underlying reform deal if they knew the sentencing amendment was tied to it with a string.
“That’s what we face,” Grassley noted. “There are some people around here [who] are just a little bit afraid of what you call an Assistant U.S. Attorneys Association and they’re stopping everything from being done that is so successful in the other states. When people are willing to stand up to those leaders of the Senate, we’ll get something done in both areas.”