WASHINGTON (CN) - The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a broad, bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, sending it on to an uncertain future before the full Senate.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 reduces mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, giving judges greater discretion to take a defendant's criminal history into account during sentencing.
The bill would allow inmates to petition courts for reconsideration of their sentence while putting in place higher penalties for crimes of domestic violence and trafficking in heroin laced with fentanyl.
The bill also provides for new programs in federal prisons designed to make it easier for inmates to reenter society after their release. Certain inmates who take advantage of the programs would be eligible for reductions in their sentences.
The Judiciary Committee sent the bill to the floor by a 16-5 vote on Thursday, first striking down an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would have changed how the bill handles sentences for criminals with gun charges in their past and removed the bill's retroactivity provisions.
The bill only requires courts to hand down mandatory minimum sentences to people who used a gun during a crime of violence or drug crime if they have in the past been convicted and served a sentence for a gun charge.
Cruz said he is concerned the bill would be too lenient on violent criminals, though the bill's supporters noted courts would not automatically apply the changes retroactively, but would first need to consider a petition from the defendant and evaluate the case record as a whole.
Still, Cruz predicted the bill would not come to the floor without his amendment and promised to vote against it if it did.
"From my perspective, I would happily and enthusiastically support a bill that lessened mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, but as written I cannot in good conscience support this bill and I have real concerns that it could result in violent criminals being released from prison early who would go on to commit other crimes," Cruz said.
A similar bill stalled in the Senate during the final year of the Obama administration, in no small part due to the efforts of Sessions, who was then a senator from Alabama. Ahead of Thursday's meeting, Sessions sent a letter to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee and a lead sponsor of the bill, opposing the legislation.
Grassley was frustrated with Sessions' statement, saying at Thursday's meeting that he would not allow a member of the executive branch to dictate which legislation his committee would consider.
"He's now attorney general and he's charged with executing the laws that Congress passes, not interfering with the legislative process," Grassley said. "Certainly we value input from DOJ, but if Attorney General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job as he talked about last November and be in a Republican Senate seat now held by a Democrat from Alabama."
Grassley was also frustrated because Sessions condemned the bill even after the senator told President Trump he would not consider a new attorney general nominee at a time of rampant speculation that the president wanted to fire Sessions.
"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 that 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," Grassley said. "I don't think that's something that somebody should do to friends."
Last week Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, urged the committee to consider severing the sentencing reform portion of the bill from the sections directed at prison reform, saying he does not see a path forward on the legislation as written. Cornyn said the White House does not support the sentencing reform portion of the bill, but that it would be open to prison reform legislation.
Cornyn added that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would be hesitant to bring up any bill that does not have broad support within his caucus. While the sentencing reform portion of the bill does not have such support, Cornyn said the prison reform package likely would.
Cornyn voted against sending the bill to the floor on Thursday, saying he wants the committee to approve a bill that has a chance of becoming law. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Ben Sasse, R-Neb., John Kennedy, R-La., and Cruz joined Cornyn in opposing the bill Thursday.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Grassley said he has not received assurances from McConnell that the bill will get a vote before the full Senate.
"That's the next step, we've got to take it a step at a time and we have a few steps to take," Grassley told reporters Thursday.
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