The long-stalled effort to overhaul federal sentencing laws still stands a decent chance of passage in Congress despite opposition in the past by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, two Republican senators told a criminal justice conference on Thursday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) said that Sessions, a longtime former colleague in the Senate, “is willing to work with us on sentencing reform.” Sessions voted against a previous version of the bill on the ground that it would have gone too far in reducing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes.
It is widely assumed that Sessions would play a major role in determining the Trump administration’s views on the bill. Grassley said there is “some support” for the measure in the administration, a possible reference to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been assigned by the president to work on criminal justice issues.
Grassley and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) were among speakers at a day-long conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the conservative Charles Koch Institute. The conference was titled, “Advancing Justice, An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety.”
During the high-crime 1980s and 1990s, when Congress enacted many of the mandatory minimum sentence laws still on the books, Grassley said that as a new senator, he supported them.
Grassley still supports some mandatory minimums, but he now agrees with critics that some of the laws have resulted in “significant costs,” both to taxpayers who must pay to house inmates for long terms on minor offenses, as well as costs to “families and communities.”
Sessions was a leader in the successful 2010 effort to amend sentencing laws that imposed a much higher penalty for crack cocaine offenses than powder cocaine violations, Grassley said, demonstrating that the Attorney General does not oppose all changes in federal sentencing laws.
In a separate program at the conference, Sen. Lee said that the sentencing-reform bill would get at least 70 votes in the Senate if it were brought to the floor.
Lee called it a “lazy argument” that favoring sentencing-law changes means being “soft on crime.” He said, “We are tough on crime. We also have to be smart.”
“What we’re doing now [on sentencing] is not working,” said Lee, a former federal prosecutor. He challenged those who oppose reform proposals, “Let’s hear their ideas.”
Lee spoke along with former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) in a session subtitled, “Redefining Tough on Crime.”
DeMint said, “We have entirely too many people in prison,” observing that many inmates behind bars on minor drug offenses “come out hardened criminals.”
While Congress has failed to pass most criminal justice reform bill in recent years, states are a “bright spot” by tackling various justice issues, Lee said.
Before the conference, the Koch Foundation released a four-volume report titled, “Reforming Criminal Justice,” which editor Erik Luna, a law professor at Arizona State University, said is “meant to enlighten reform efforts in the United States with the research and analysis of leading academics.”
The volumes, which are available at this site, include 57 chapters covering dozens of topics within the areas of criminalization, policing, pretrial and trial processes, punishment, incarceration, and release. Luna said the report is written with the idea that it should be easily understandable by policymakers and lay readers.
Among other subjects addressed by conference speakers Thursday were policing, lessons for cities in tackling violent crime, a holistic approach to the opioid crisis, militarization of police, the future of marijuana policy, “restoring victims of crime,” and “reining in overcriminalization in America.”
At the violent crime session, former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram, now a professor at New York University Law School, urged reformers to spend more effort on the “front end” of the criminal justice system, so all suspected offenders are not “funneled in” to a “one size fits all” legal process.
Milgram urged more attention to diverting crime suspects to mental illness and drug treatment rather than putting many of them on a path to prison.
Asked to discuss why Chicago’s crime problems are so much worse than those in other urban areas like New York City, Milgram said that shootings in the city are down as much as 20 percent this year, and that a disproportionate amount of Chicago’s homicide totals are concentrated in five neighborhoods.
In opening the conference, Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute, called criminal justice reform “an issue whose time has come” and forecast that “there is progress on the horizon at the federal level.”