The chances for even modest criminal justice reform during the Trump era might seem remote. But the Senate Judiciary Committee is giving it a try.
On Wednesday, the Committee begun consideration of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, legislation with twenty cosponsors from both parties in the upper chamber.
A mark-up vote will be held next week by the committee. In October 2015, the panel advanced the proposal in a 15-5 vote. If enacted, the bill would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, with retroactive effect, while bolstering re-entry programs for those behind bars.
When Barack Obama was in the White House–with pressure from increasingly well-organized police accountability activists–the bill seemed far more likely to be signed into law. President Trump has shown little interest in making the criminal justice system anything but more powerful and less forgiving to the incarcerated.
As John Cornyn (R-Texas) also noted on Wednesday, the incumbent top federal prosecutor is ex-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the five members of the committee who rejected the bill more than two years ago.
“Given the opposition of the Attorney General and given the vocal opposition of some law enforcement groups, I honestly don’t see a path forward for that bill that we tried to move forward during the Obama administration,” Cornyn said.
The lawmaker also noted that efforts in the previous Congress failed–though the House Judiciary Committee also marked up a reform bill at the end of 2015.
Some of the strongest pushback to this sentiment came from members of Cornyn’s own party, who appeared to direct criticism towards Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“It would have passed by bipartisan supermajority vote on the Senate floor had we been given the opportunity to vote on the Senate floor,” said Mike Lee (R-Utah), of reform efforts in the last Congress.
“It would pass by a bipartisan supermajority on the Senate floor today,” Lee added.
Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a one-time impediment to sentencing reforms, also decried obstruction from the top, saying derisively: “some people around here are just a little bit afraid of what you call an Assistant US Attorneys Association.”
“And when some people are willing to stand up to those leaders of the Senate, we’ll get something done in both areas,” Grassley said, referring to both sentencing and prison reforms.
“You’re looking at us, Mr. Chairman, but I think you’re speaking to your own caucus,” replied Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). The Democrat had spoken just before Grassley.
Cornyn, who has supported reforms, said he brought up hurdles because he only wanted to avoid spending committee time on a “futile gesture.” McConnell, he noted, “has the unilateral discretion whether or not to place bills on the floor of the Senate and subject them to amendment.”
“Previously he chose not to because of this challenge we had with the sentencing reform part, and the opposition of law enforcement and the divisions that exist among members,” Cornyn added.