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February 28, 2018

Trump White House expresses opposition to sentencing reform part of SRCA of 2017

Given that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 could not even get very far in Congress despite the support of then of the President and Attorney General, I have never been all that optimistic about the prospects for the 2017 version of this bill.  Attorney General Sessions has been against it from the get-go, and this new report from the The Hill indicates that the White House has now put its opposition forward.  Here are the details:

The White House on Tuesday said it sees no path forward for legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences, instead throwing its support behind measures aimed at reducing recidivism rates. "The conclusion we reached was that, at this time, it's appropriate for us to go forward with prison reform," a senior administration official said.

The White House's position represents a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor by a 16-5 vote earlier this month over the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a few GOP members on the committee....

A senior White House official said the administration respects Grassley’s efforts, but sees no path forward for sentencing reform. "The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done," the official said. "And so what we see now is an environment where the prison reform does have enough support to get done. And we think that by maybe doing this in smaller bits and pushing the prison reform now, we think this has a better chance of getting done."

A second official said the White House is instead focused on prison reform legislation like Rep. Doug Collins's (R-Ga.) bipartisan Prison Reform and Redemption Act. That bill, co-sponsored by nine Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates.

Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment. "I think that that is a good basis that we can look at and start with," the second senior White House official said of Collins's bill. “I do think that as the conversation continues over the coming weeks, there might be additions, changes, amendments, and we want to go through the regular order committee processes. But I do think that that's a big piece of legislation to look at as a starting point."

A source familiar with the talks with the White House told The Hill in January that Collins’s bill is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said the chairman is focused on passing sound policy, not the path of least resistance. "Bipartisan support continues to grow in the Senate for comprehensive criminal justice reform, which includes providing additional discretion for judges at sentencing for lower level, non-violent drug crimes," he said. "Chairman Grassley’s broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is cosponsored by nearly a quarter of the Senate. Our office continues to have productive conversations with the White House on this issue.”

A senior White House official said President Trump is planning to sign an executive order Wednesday to revamp the Federal Reentry Council and move it from the Department of Justice to the White House. Under the Obama administration, the interagency council worked to reduce recidivism and improve employment, education, housing, health and child welfare outcomes, according to the Department of Justice website.

The White House said Tuesday it sent a list of legislative principles for reform efforts to Congress. In addition to effectively using government resources to reduce crime and incentivize re-entry programs, the White House wants Congress to expand access to prison work programs. It also wants lawmakers to evaluate and facilitate public and private partnerships that improve pre- and post-release employment opportunities for inmates.

I am disappointed but not especially surprised that the White House is indicating that it is only willing to support a more modest prison reform bill rather than all the significant sentencing reforms that appear in the SRCA.  Prez Trump has to date only voiced support for prison reform efforts, and he has formally and informally talked up a "tough and tougher" approach to sentencing drug dealers.  Those eager to see reductions in federal drug sentences should likely be grateful many leading GOP legislators favor such reforms because otherwise Prez Trump might well be actively advocating for enhancing the severity of federal drug sentences.  

I have long been saying that, for various reasons and for lots of offenders, significant prison reform could end up even more consequential than some proposed sentencing reform.  Thus, I sincerely hope that everyone interested in the kinds of reforms that the SRCA represent will be prepared to get behind the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA) and work to make it as effective and expansive and consequential as possible.  Some version of the PRRA looks now to be the only significant federal criminal justice reform proposal with a realistic chance of becoming law in 2018. 

It has already been nearly a decade since we have seen anything close to significant legislative reforms benefiting federal defendants or prisoners. (I am thinking of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act as the last big legislative change, though the 2014 "Drugs-2" guideline amendment was also a very big deal.)  I want to believe that the passage of something like the PRRA could help create new momentum for a range of reforms bog and small in Congress and elsewhere, and so the fact that the White House is endorsing some reform efforts is still encouraging despite its discouraging view of the SRCA.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 at 01:36 AM | Permalink


How about we replace high school with job and vocational skills training, rather than wait until someone's committed a crime to give them it free?

Posted by: Preventative employment | Feb 28, 2018 10:31:17 AM

" (I am thinking of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act as the last big legislative change, though the 2014 "Drugs-2" guideline amendment was also a very big deal.)"

Thanks to Congress for crafting such things and Obama for supporting them as well.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 28, 2018 12:44:53 PM

Yep, Joe, kudos to Prez Obama for not blocking sentencing changes over his full eight years that collectively are arguably not quite as consequential as the prison reform Prez Trump has now signaled support for in his second year. Then again, Prez Obama had a filibuster-proof majority in his first two years, so I suppose we should not have expected much from him during that period.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 28, 2018 4:56:37 PM

"Prez Obama had a filibuster-proof majority in his first two years"

He did not. It was in place for less than two years with the Franken seat in limbo and illness to at least one senator.

And, when he did have it, there were many things that had to be done or were in the process of being done. And, he isn't the prime minister. Every single Democrat wasn't going to support it -- a few are pretty tough on crime types. Republicans however were loathe to give him a victory, even when Obama supported things they themselves did up to and including a Merrick Garland. Anyway, Congress had to fight it out as they do with things & the fact the process has been in place for years & Republicans don't have to worry about helping Obama any more, kinda is important too.

The idea Trump is somehow better than Obama here or anywhere on the same level is almost troll level factoring everything especially when I was sure not to single out Obama alone. I in fact said CONGRESS "crafted" it, which I think is key. I also don't like "Obamacare" in part because CONGRESS (more so the Senate) played a key role. But, all the same, you yourself cited two things that were accomplished. There are others that helped criminal justice reform, but those two were specifically cited.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 28, 2018 8:59:00 PM

Joe, I am not saying "Trump is somehow better than Obama here," I am saying that we could end up getting something more consequential and lasting from Trump and the GOP in his first two years than we got from Obama and Dems over the previous eight. That possibility is a function of a range of realities, many of which are outside the control of a Prez. But it is remarkable sign of the times given that Obama campaigned as a criminal justice reform, while Trump campaigned as a law-and-order candidate.

Posted by: Doug B | Mar 1, 2018 9:52:50 AM

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