Cornyn Sees No Way Forward for Sweeping Criminal-Justice Reform

WASHINGTON (CN) – Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday he does not see a path forward during the Trump administration for a sweeping bipartisan criminal justice reform bill being prepared for consideration next week.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a bipartisan bill introduced last year that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and give judges more discretion to consider a defendant’s criminal history during sentencing. The bill also creates prison programs aimed at reducing recidivism, allowing some inmates to earn reductions in their sentences if they complete reentry programs.

A similar version of the bill stalled in the Senate during the Obama administration, in no small part due to the opposition of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who at the time was a senator from Alabama.

Cornyn, the number two-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday that he fears a similar fate for the bill in the current Congress. He suggested the Senate should instead separate the sentencing reform portion of the bill from its prison reform provisions, which have broader support among lawmakers.

Cornyn said the prison reform bill would have a clear path to the Senate floor, where senators could offer the sentencing reform package as an amendment.

“What I’m talking about is making a law, not a futile gesture of passing something out of the committee and not getting it brought to the floor, or passing the Senate and not being brought up in the House or being passed by both chambers and then vetoed by a president,” he said.

The senator said after the meeting that his conversations with the White House indicate the Trump administration supports a prison reform package, but not the sentencing reform half of the current legislation.

“All the communications I’ve had with the White House is they would welcome a prison reform bill,” Cornyn told Courthouse News. “That’s what the president mentioned in the State of the Union, that’s all my conversations with [White House senior advisor Jared] Kushner and others, that’s the discussion that we’ve had with the attorney general. And so hence my frustration that we can’t seem to get that moving because my colleagues are focused on the very part of their sentencing reform bill that the administration doesn’t support.”

Cornyn also said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would be more likely to bring a prison reform bill to the floor than a sentencing reform package that would be a wedge within the Republican caucus. As the Senate majority whip, Cornyn serves as an assistant to McConnell charged with gauging and gathering Republican support for bills.

“I think that the prison reform bill is a bill that has virtually unanimous support, so I think he would be more inclined, my guess is, to take the bill up,” Cornyn said of McConnell. “But I don’t think he’s going to take up a bill that divides our members.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who is a prominent co-sponsor of the bill, did not support Cornyn’s plan, saying the Senate should not abandon bipartisan legislation just because the administration does not fully support it.

“It’s a sad day if we are saying that we will not consider a measure in the halls here of the Senate Judiciary Committee if the attorney general of the United States opposes it,” Durbin said at the committee meeting. “For goodness sakes, have we reached that point? I hope not.”

But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said he would support either method of bringing the bill to the floor, saying Cornyn’s route might be a “more realistic way” to get to reform.

“Nearly half a decade of federal prisoners who would have benefitted from the re-entry reform have been denied those benefits while we wait, and wait, and wait for this bipartisan compromise to come to sufficient reality that we actually move on a bill,” Whitehouse said at the meeting.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee who sponsors the criminal justice reform bill, expressed frustration that the bill’s support is not broader within the Republican party.

“We face a lot of support and a lot of justification for sentencing reform, as well as prison reform, but there’s some people around here who are just a little bit afraid of what you call an Assistant United States Attorneys Association,” Grassley said at the meeting. “And they’re stopping everything from being done that is so successful in other states.”

The Judiciary Committee is expected to consider the full criminal justice reform bill next week, a key step towards the bill reaching the full Senate.

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