Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions succeeded in stalling the sentencing reform movement while serving in the U.S. Senate, “it could be very hard for advocates to regain their footing while he is the nation’s chief law enforcement official,” reports the New York Times. Sessions’ views run contrary to a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington and many state capitals in recent years that the U.S. is guilty of excessive incarceration and that large prison populations are too costly in tax dollars and the toll on families and communities. Conservatives and liberals in the Senate had agreed on a plan to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and create new programs to help offenders adjust to life after prison. Stiff opposition from Sessions and a few other outspoken Republicans stalled the bill in the Senate and sapped momentum from a simultaneous House effort. As the 2016 elections approached, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), wouldn’t bring the politically charged issue to the floor.
Advocates of the sentencing changes say they hope Sessions’ move last week to seek tougher punishments for federal drug cases will stir Congress to intervene and establish new policy through legislation. Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, has been assigned the job of working on a criminal justice overhaul, among other issues. Pushing the bipartisan approach would require confronting the sitting attorney general and perhaps the president, a challenge many Republicans may not be willing to accept. None of the chief Republican backers of the Senate legislation have issued any public reaction to the new Justice Department directive, not a good sign for proponents of an overhaul.