Criminal Justice

The White House Is Moving Forward on Prison Reform Despite Justice Department Resistance

The president and Senate Republicans might be coming to an agreement that includes some sentencing reforms, too.



Despite opposition from the Justice Department, the White House is continuing to work with Republicans in Congress to pass prison reform legislation, possibly including some elements of sentencing reform.

On Wednesday the White House hosted a meeting on criminal justice reform with key Republican senators, including Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. "We had a great meeting with President Trump on criminal justice reform this afternoon, and I think we've made some meaningful progress," Lee said in a statement to Reason. According to a source familiar with the meeting, Trump agreed to support four provisions from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a Senate bill that would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences.

The move would be significant because the core group of Republicans and Democrats behind the Senate bill has insisted on including sentencing reform as part of any criminal justice legislation, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is highly unlikely to bring a bill to the floor if there is vocal opposition from either the White House or the Republican caucus. "The question is whether there [are] enough sentencing provisions in there to make those guys happy without turning off too many Republicans and making it too toxic for McConnell to put on the floor," says Alex Gudich, deputy director of #Cut50, a criminal justice advocacy group that has been closely following the legislation.

In May, the House passed the FIRST STEP Act, which would mandate various changes to the federal Bureau of Prisons, by a wide, bipartisan margin. Trump son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner has been a driving force behind that bill, and Trump, joined by criminal justice advocates, evangelical organizations, and business groups, has touted prison reform as an opportunity to get formerly incarcerated Americans back on their feet and into the job market.

Progressive Democrats and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said the bill fell far short of their requirements, and Grassley has been adamant that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which his committee approved in February, be included in some way. Adding sentencing reform provisions to the FIRST STEP Act would also be noteworthy because of Justice Department's opposition to it. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch law-and-order conservative, fiercely opposes reducing mandatory minimum sentences and is no fan of the FIRST STEP Act either.

At the same time Trump was hosting a meeting on criminal justice reform yesterday, the Washington Free Beacon published a leaked letter from the Justice Department to the White House outlining its concerns about the FIRST STEP Act. "In the Department's view," the letter says, "this legislation, if passed in its current form, would further and significantly erode our long established truth-in-sentencing principles, create impossible administrative burdens, effectively reduce the sentences of thousands of violent felons, and endanger the safety of law-abiding citizens and law enforcement officers."

#Cut50's Gudich says the letter uses the same sort of "dehumanizing language and baseless fear tactics" that led to mass incarceration in the first place. "In some cases, we're talking about a matter of weeks," Gudich says. "Claiming that keeping them in prison for a couple more weeks is going to keep communities safer makes no sense."

The Justice Department letter also ties the declining federal prison population to rising crime rates, as Sessions has done in many of his public speeches. "The number of federal inmates has declined more than 16 percent since 2013 and is at its lowest level since 2004," the letter reads. "It is likely no coincidence that, at the same time, we are in the midst of the largest drug crisis in our nation's history and recently experienced the two largest single-year increases in the national violent crime rate in a quarter of a century."

Conservative and libertarian groups that support criminal justice reform pushed back against the Justice Department letter today. FreedomWorks published a lengthy rebuttal. "Simply put," it said, "correlation doesn't equal causation."

Those groups have been bolstered by a poll released last week by Freedom Partners, a nonprofit group that funds conservative and libertarian causes, showing 70 percent of voters nationwide think the Senate should pass the FIRST STEP Act. Opposing the bill "means accepting a status quo in which two out of every three formerly incarcerated people is rearrested within three years of their release," former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, now a member of Right on Crime, another conservative criminal justice reform group, said in a statement provided to Reason. "We can't continue treating our federal prisons like warehouses and expecting things to change."

When reporters asked Grassley today about his former Senate colleague Sessions' efforts to derail the legislation, he didn't hold back. "With all that I have done to help Sessions, to keep the president from firing him, I think Sessions ought to stay out of it," Grassley told reporters.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.