Last-Ditch Senate Talks Ahead on Sentencing Reform

The House passed a federal prison reform bill, but some senators are insisting on adding sentencing provisions. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would consider it if President Trump would sign it.

A prison reform bill passed in the U.S. House last week, but Senate authors of a long-stalled measure that includes sentencing reform are steadfastly opposed to the House plan, reports the New York Times. They have the clout and perhaps the votes to stall it, if not block it altogether. Last week, a group of senators corralled Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and asked for time for a last-ditch negotiation to try to find an acceptable compromise. Backers of changes in mandatory minimum sentencing laws fear that this may be the only chance for years to push a major criminal justice measure through Congress. “You don’t get many opportunities around here to do anything meaningful or substantive,” said Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), a chief author of the sentencing provisions. “Let’s not waste this one. Let’s get this right.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) warned last week that no criminal justice measure can pass the Senate without new flexibility in mandatory minimum sentences. McConnell could try to go around Grassley and advance the House measure, which passed 360 to 59. It allocates $50 million a year over five years for job training, education and mental health and drug treatment, and provides incentives for prisoners to take part. He refused to put the broad prison and sentencing bill to a vote in the last Congress amid objections from conservatives, including Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now the attorney general. Last week, McConnell told senators, “Look, guys, if you all can get your act together and come up with something that you’re comfortable with, that the president will sign, I’d be willing to take a look at it.” Grassley and Durbin want to narrow the definition of crimes that can prompt long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and to cut some required sentences.