Although Attorney-General Jeff Session warned a day earlier that passing the measure would be a grave error that risked putting the very worst criminals back into our communities, on Feb. 15 Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) pushed a sentencing reform bill (S. 1917) through his panel without amendment, on a 16-5 vote.
Grassley introduced the bill in October along with the Senate Democratic whip, Richard Durbin (D-IL). The bill now has a bipartisan group of 20 additional co-sponsors. All 10 Democrats on the committee voted in favor of the bill, along with six of its 11 Republicans.
The “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017” would trim federal mandatory minimum sentence guidelines for repeat drug offenders who don’t have a record of serious violent offenses, and widen several exceptions to mandatory minimum sentencing. At the same time, the bill would impose new mandatory minimum sentences for providing support for terrorism, interstate domestic abuse that causes death, and selling fentanyl-laced drugs.
The measure would allow approximately 3,100 federal inmates still incarcerated under a since-repealed law providing far heavier penalties for crack cocaine than for the powdered drug to petition for sentence reductions; the 2010 law reducing that disparity did so only prospectively.
This year, on the day before the committee was to mark up the bill, Sessions wrote committee leaders to voice his objections. Complaining that courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission have in recent years given significant sentencing breaks to convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals, Sessions wrote, the bill, by further reducing drug traffickers’ sentences “in the midst of the worst drug crisis” in the nation’s history, “would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.”
A clearly exasperated Grassley took sharp issue with the Attorney General’s claim the bill would reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals. Instead, the chairman protested, his bill optimizes the criminal justice system by revising mandatory minimum sentences to focus only on the most dangerous and violent criminals.
Citing polls showing that large majorities favor shifting spending priorities away from prisons and toward law enforcement, rehabilitation, anti-recidivism efforts and victim services, Grassley stressed his bill would condition any sentence reductions on judges first reviewing an applicant’s case, examining criminal history, their conduct while incarcerated, and the successful completion of recidivism prevention programs.
The committee-passed bill will give the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) three years to expand its residential drug abuse education program so that all eligible inmates could participate, and will require BOP to develop and regularly use a tool to assess inmates’ recidivism risk. The bill is identical to one that, after lengthy talks between two parties, cleared the panel in 2015. Despite significant support from both conservative and liberal groups, that bill never came to a vote on the Senate floor, most likely due to reluctance by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring a potentially controversial measure to a vote shortly before the 2016 elections.
While the Trump administration hasn’t yet issued a formal statement of opposition, Sessions’ public statement raises questions on whether Republican legislative leaders will be willing to take up the measure. Thus far, the House of Representatives does not have its own version of the Senate committee-passed bill.
Christopher Zoukis, the author of the Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts (McFarland & Co., 2014), is a contributing writer to Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News, Criminal Legal News, and the New York Journal of Books. He can be found online at PrisonerResource.com.