Senators of both parties on Thursday moved forward their long-odds legislation to enact some degree of reform for the federal criminal justice system.
By a vote of 16-5, and amid protests from some senators that the bill would likely face hurdles too high to pass, the Senate Judiciary Committee backed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a package to reduce some of the strictest federal sentencing rules along with reforms for the federal prison system.
Ahead of the vote, Chairman Chuck Grassley expressed anger with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who he called a friend, for coming out against the bill.
"I'm really irritated that he would send that letter considering the fact that he was very controversial before this committee to be attorney general, considering that most of the assistant attorney generals have been sent up here have been very controversial and difficult to get through this committee, considering the fact that the President was going to fire him last spring and I went to his defense," the Iowa Republican said. "I don't think that's something that somebody should do to friends."
Sessions wrote in a letter CNN obtained Wednesday that the Justice Department was against the bill and he warned that it would increase violent crime and hamstring federal law enforcement.
"Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation's history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences," Sessions said.
Sentencing and prison reform
Thursday's markup showed Grassley staking his position on a comprehensive approach, rather than moving forward the Corrections Act, which is a vehicle for prison reform without the sentencing component.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who is one of the lawmakers backing the prison reform approach, opposed the comprehensive package and said he did not think sentencing reform would make it into law given the current political landscape.
"Call it a concession to the brevity of life," Cornyn said.
The House Judiciary Committee has similar legislation available, both sentencing reform and a bill that would reform the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the mold of several states around the nation. It is unclear when the House panel might move forward or with what approach.
President Donald Trump said in his State of the Union speech last month that he supported prison reform, following White House meetings on the issue and a statement of approval from Sessions.
Cornyn and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island expressed skepticism a week before the committee markup that the comprehensive package would make it into law, given Sessions' express opposition.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Sessions' opposition "can't be excuse for inaction," and GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that of the two major components, "I don't see how you do one without the other."
"I am for prison reform, but I am also for reform of why people stay in jail so long," Graham said.
What the bill would do
The bill would seek to lessen the impact of mandatory minimums, legislatively enforced minimum sentences that prevent judges from setting sentences below a certain threshold. It would also move to make reforms in the Fair Sentencing Act -- a 2010 law backed by then-Sen. Sessions to reduce the disparity in sentences between crack and powder cocaine -- retroactive for some convicts, pending court approval for those people.
On the prison reform side, it would enact the provisions of the Corrections Act, which seeks to mandate that the Bureau of Prisons put in place a new approach to re-entry and anti-recidivism programs for prisoners, like education.
The powerful National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, along with several other law enforcement groups, has come out against the bill, expressing opposition similar to Sessions'. The association claims that reducing mandatory minimums, among other sentencing provisions, would lead to an increase in violent crime.
For many advocates, the bill is an acceptable compromise to implement reforms that have struggled to make it into law for years.
Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said he wanted the comprehensive package, and worried that prison reform alone would be ineffective for a range of reasons.
One of his worries, he told CNN ahead of the markup, was that if prison reform were unsuccessful or inconclusive, opponents of criminal justice reform more generally would use that as a reason not to make further changes.
"Our biggest concern is if they call this reform and it's not meaningful, that's going to harm prospects in the future," Ring said.
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