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Jeff Sessions and Chuck Grassley Spar Over Sentencing Reform

"If General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama."

YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS/NewscomYURI GRIPAS/REUTERS/NewscomToday the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bipartisan sentencing reform bill over the protests of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, sparked a testy back-and-forth between Sessions and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

In a letter to the committee yesterday, Sessions warned that passing the proposed legislation would be a "grave error."

"In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission." Sessions wrote. "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 was a staunch opponent of efforts to roll back mandatory minimums during his time as an Alabama Republican senator. So was Grassley, a traditional law-and-order conservative, but in a turnabout, he's now leading the efforts of a core group of Republicans and Democrats who have been trying to overhaul federal sentencing laws for several years.

"When I read his letter, it was almost as if Senator Sessions was back on the Judiciary Committee," Grassley shot back in a prepared statement at today's committe hearing. "But that's the problem. He is now the Attorney General and is charged with executing the laws that Congress passes, not interfering with the legislative process."

"Certainly we value input from the Department of Justice, but if General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama," Grassley continued.

Unswayed by Sessions, the committee voted 16–5 to advance the bill to the full Senate.

"We don't have to report to the Justice Department," Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said. "We're 100 individual senators, and we can make up our own mind."

The bill would reduce the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for repeat drug offenders without serious violent felonies, and it would broaden the "safety valve" exception to federal mandatory minimum sentences. It would also add new mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic abuse and for providing support for terrorists, while strengthening penalties for certain other crimes.

An identical version of the legislation, a result of months of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, passed out of the committee in late 2015. But it failed to ever reach the Senate floor for a vote, despite the support of a broad group of both conservative and progressive advocacy groups.

Many criminal justice reformers considered it the best chance in more than a decade to overhaul federal sentencing laws, but the bipartisan momentum behind it faded during a contentious election year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), facing opposition to the bill from a small but vocal group of conservative Republicans, said he was waiting for the House to pass its own slate of criminal justice bills. That package never made to the House floor either.

The bill will face the same challenges now, plus a president who seems allergic to any proposals that someone might call "soft on crime." On the other hand, Trump's son-in-law—White House adviser Jared Kushner—has been meeting with Grassley and other senators over the past year to discuss criminal justice reform.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has also emerged as key advocate for sentencing reform in the GOP caucus. "I support this not in spite of the fact I am a conservative, but precisely because I am a conservative," he said at the committee hearing.

Lee cited the case of Weldon Angelos, who became an unfortunate poster child for excessive sentencing after receiving a 55-year mandatory prison sentence for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer on three separate occasions. Angelos was 24 when he was sentenced and would not have been released until he was 72. He was granted an early release last year after more than a decade of advocacy on his behalf, including by Lee.

Grassley, Lee, Kushner, and the coalition of groups supporting the bill will have to contend not just with Sessions and like-minded Republicans, but with outside law enforcement groups whose opinions are near and dear to the president's heart.

The Fraternal Order of Police, which touts itself as the largest police union in the country, sent a letter to Trump today urging the White House to oppose the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

"At a time when our nation is being ravaged by an epidemic of overdose from the use of heroin and opioids, it seems at variance with common sense and sound policy to drastically reduce sentences for drug traffickers and then apply these reduced sentences retroactively," the letter argued. "This same troubling approach was taken by the previous Administration and thousands of offenders benefitted from early release without any consideration to the impact on public safety. We cannot explain why proponents of this bill seek to repeat this same error."

Photo Credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "We don't have to report to the Justice Department," Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said. "We're 100 individual senators, and we can make up our own mind."

    *Puts quote in memory toolbox... you know, for later-- 'cause it might come in handy*

  • Hugh Akston||

    convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals

    Uh, drug trafficking is not a violent offense.

  • ||

    [molasses southern accent] Druug trafficking is an inherently viohlent ohhfense.

  • Rhywun||

  • chipper me timbers||

    Jeff Sessions' appointment as AG is easily the worst thing about Trump so far. By a big margin.

  • TLBD||

    He sucks. I want to like him, but he really just sucks. He got lucky he picked the right horse when the odds were high. I just hope that his impotence in areas that actually matter get him fired as soon as the Mueller investigation is done.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Second

  • Brian||

    Jeff Sessions: super douche.

  • Tony||

    So what the FROPs are saying is that we they've been abject failures at reducing drug problems, so obviously we need to double down on their tactics.

  • TLBD||

    Now, Tony, apply that logic to the War on Poverty. You're almost there, don't let rational thought slip through your fingers!

  • Tony||

    Has poverty increased to pre-WoP rates (close to 25%) once since the legislation was first enacted? Why, no, it's been relatively stable (between 10%-15%) even with a major global recession in the mix.

    Of course unlike drug war policies, the WoP initiatives have only been scaled back over time. Ironically for the same reason the drug war has not: lots of Americans hate the dirty brown poors and want the government to shit on them.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    So, you're saying that the rates are stable, even as the initiatives have been rolled back? What does this imply about those initiatives?

  • Tony||

    Something's remained in place to prevent a major upswing to the 25% level. We do still have a safety net. We jsut took away a lot of specific programs meant to help people in specific ways.

  • TLBD||

    Ah, so close, Tony, so close. I had hope for you there for a second!

    Poverty rates were plummeting already when the WOP started. As is typical with government (think gay marriage, segregation, slavery, soon to be marijuana) they see a trend, jump on it, take credit for it, then proceed to fuck it up in every way possible.

  • Tony||

    It was in the middle of a recovery, but as I said, in the entire time since then poverty has not reached the pre-WoP highs. Just look at the graph. It's only correlation but it certainly didn't do the opposite of its intended effect as with the drug war.

  • TLBD||

    It'd been dropping like a rock for 14 years, Tony. Jesus.

  • TLBD||

    It's only correlation but it certainly didn't do the opposite of its intended effect as with the drug war.

    No, I'm pretty sure it did exactly what its intended effect was.

  • Rhywun||

    the WoP initiatives have only been scaled back over time

    Oh my god.

  • Tony||

    We had the end of welfare as we know it under Clinton.

  • BYODB||

    Face it Jeff, you were outmaneuvered and good riddance. If you wanted to influence the legislation you're now (supposedly) bound by, you should have stayed in a different branch of government.


    It's hard not to laugh.

  • sarcasmic||

    The federal government shouldn't be involved in criminal matters.

  • John||

    Sessions can go fuck himself. The AG's job is to enforce the laws. If Sessions doesn't like the laws Congress passes, that is just too bad. It is up to the Congress to pass laws and if they want Sessions' opinion they will ask for it. How dare he pretend that as AG he has some right to influence what laws or passed beyond providing whatever information or technical advice the Congress asks of him.

  • TLBD||

    Portugal is a case study on a better way to tackle the drug problem. Yet, assholes like Sessions pretend like it doesn't exist. Is it brainwashing, or more sinister? Either way, the man (and many in Congress) are too stupid or corrupt to deal with drugs in a reasonable way, and they have no business leading a fast food chain, let alone some of the most powerful institutions on earth.

  • John||

    What pisses me off about people like Sessions is that they can't seem to comprehend that not every bad trend goes on forever. It sucks to be a drug addict. Most people don't want to be one. There is nothing magical about drugs that take away your free will. You could legalize every drug there is tomorrow and it wouldn't mean a damn thing to me because I don't really have any desire to use them or if I did to abuse them. They convince themselves they are saving people by making drugs illegal and they are doing nothing of the sort. People either are smart enough to be responsible and thus don't need to be saved or they are not. And if they are not, making drugs illegal and throwing them into prison isn't going to save them.

  • sarcasmic||

    For drug warriors it's a moral issue. Drugs are bad because people enjoy them, and you're not allowed to get enjoyment from drugs because it's not real enjoyment. It's fake enjoyment. That's why if you drink enough to enjoy it, you're legally intoxicated and doing a bad thing. If you're going to enjoy yourself you need to do something real. People who get enjoyment from fake stuff are morally corrupt, and belong in prison.

  • John||

    There really is some truth to that. And you can tell it is true because they get angry about terminally ill people getting addicted. The person is dying and in horrible pain. Who cares if they are whacked out in lala land on morphine? Better that than suffering horrible pain. But, the drug warriors would rather you suffer in pain that experience the sin of being high. It is just insane.

  • sarcasmic||

    But, the drug warriors would rather you suffer in pain that experience the sin of being high.

    Puritans are alive and well.

  • Zeb||

    they can't seem to comprehend that not every bad trend goes on forever

    That's a good observation. A lot of people seem to assume that the war on drugs is all that is keeping everyone from becoming a heroin addict. When the truth is that there are only a certain number of people likely to become seriously addicted to anything. Most people either aren't interested in doing lots of drugs, or can do some and then stop or only do it occasionally. I suspect the number of drug users might go up a bit if everything were legalized. But that would likely be more than offset by the reduced damage done to society by addicts doing bad things to get their fix.

  • John||

    Millions of people, and if you are not one of them I guarantee you that you know one of them, tried drugs recreationally when they were in high school or college and either didn't really enjoy them or if they did eventually grew up and decided they have better things to do. I know several people who snorted coke back in the 70s and 80s when it was cool, never got addicted and stopped doing it at some point.

    Drug abuse is an expression of some other underlying problem, be that a genetic pre-disposition to get addicted or some kind of affinity for compulsive behavior. If you have such a thing, you are going to be addicted to something and doing something that is self-destructive. If you don't, you won't be abusing anything. Making drugs illegal does not change who is in those two groups or what the results of being there are one bit.

  • BYODB||

    Are we including alcohol under the rubric of 'drugs' because if we are most of the public seems to have very little problem with doing legal drugs.

  • John||

    That is the other thing. The same people who let doctors put their kids on Adderall, which is nothing but speed, turn around and are the worst drug warriors because they don't want people selling drugs to their children. How the hell does someone manage that kind of cognitive dissonance?

    I honestly think that the big drug companies are as big of a reason for prohibition as anything else. They don't want people using any drugs but the ones they make. In fact, drugs like marijuana and MDNA are likely more effective for some things and much cheaper than the drugs the drug companies are selling.

  • sarcasmic||

    How the hell does someone manage that kind of cognitive dissonance?

    Simple. A doctor is an authority figure, and if authority says it's OK then it's OK.

  • Rhywun||

    This and peer pressure (and lots of government propaganda). As a society, we decide which drugs are the good drugs and which are the bad drugs. Every once in a while we need to be nudged into shifing one of the good ones into the bad pile.

  • Idaho Bob||

    Follow the money. Pharmaceutical companies and booze manufacturers lobby against MJ as well as cops and private prisons.

  • Zeb||

    Are we including alcohol under the rubric of 'drugs'

    I generally do.

  • BYODB||

    As do I, but if you include alcohol in the category of drugs than it paints a very different picture in terms of how accepting of drugs the American public really is.

  • kevrob||

    With alcohol, a certain percentage get addicted, more or less permanently. Others are not daily drinking addicts, but abuse from time to time. I've heard the term "weekend alcoholic" - sober
    during the work week or on "school nights," but getting lit up if they figure they can sleep in the next day. The latter can and do get themselves in trouble and cause trouble for others, but may not be clinically addicts. Plenty of us "partied" like that in college and for some years after but ratcheted it back because life intervenes: jobs that don't give you enough time off, living where you have to drive everywhere and not wanting to drive impaired, need to keep your wits because you are supervising kids, etc. The people who can't prioritize their use of their recreational drugs of choice, but put them before their responsibilities are the ones who really need help. I buy into the combination of a genetic component and an "addictive personality," part nature, part nurture, as the cause. Outlawing substances that one person can handle, but another can't, doesn't solve any underlying personality problems.

  • Tony||

    He's got a fixation so fixed it's hard to explain. He was a fan of the KKK until he learned they smoked weed, for example.

  • TLBD||

    Tony, we can critique people based on their stances on things that are wrong.

    Pretending that he is racist based on an obvious joke is stupid. For each stupid person Sessions is an enemy of, he gains a little credibility. Do not give that man credibility. Thanks.

  • Tony||

    Oh he very much is a racist. He was the second person in 50 years to have his appointment to a federal judgeship blocked because of his racist behavior. He's named after the president of the Confederacy AND the general who started the Civil War for Christ's sake.

  • BYODB||

    Sessions is named after Abraham Lincoln?

  • TLBD||

    You simply cannot help it, can you?

  • Tony||

    I mean, yes, but come on. Jefferson "Be careful how you speak to white people, Boy" Sessions?

  • TLBD||

    Either way, if a man can be a Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops in the KKK and be rehabilitated, I'm sure the hearsay of a disgruntled employee shouldn't mean much

  • TLBD||

    See, damnit, you got me defending him. He is a piece of shit, Tony, but it has little or nothing to do with your perverted racist fantasies.

  • Tony||

    So why can't you say he's a racist piece of shit? Maybe he's rehabilitated. I don't know or care. He works for the most openly racist president since reconstruction.

  • An Owl Named Dur||

    Tony, ever heard of Woodrow fucking Wilson?

  • TLBD||

    I was talking about Robert Byrd, Tony. Pointing out your hypocrisy, mostly. Accidentally pointed out your ignorance.

  • An Owl Named Dur||

    My grandfather was named "Adolph", damned Nazi bastard....

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "But that's the problem. He is now the Attorney General and is charged with executing the laws that Congress passes, not interfering with the legislative process."

    Wow. Open purse, remove balls, huh? I'm beginning to think maybe Sessions wasn't liked when he was in the Senate.

  • John||

    I am not sure being disliked in the Senate is much of an insult. My sense is that most of them don't really get along very well with the other Senators because they are all assholes. Outside of Ron Paul and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who isn't even in the Senate anymore, I can't think of a single Senator in my lifetime I have any real desire to know. Can you?

  • TLBD||

    Orrin Hatch seems like he has a pretty good sense of humor.

  • sarcasmic||

    Hey John, I stumbled across a band you might like. Them Crooked Vultures. I know you don't like Dave Grohl's drumming, but this band is pretty good. Having Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and John Paul Jones (yes, that John Paul Jones) helps a bit as well.

  • sarcasmic||

  • John||

    Thanks man. I will look them up.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Senator Blutarsky

  • John||

    The did a 25th Aniversary DVD of Animal House. They made this "where are the members of the Delta House Now" documentary to go on it. It was awesome. Since they couldn't bring Belushi back and didn't want to say Blutarsky was dead, they showed a picture of the White House, which was then occupied by former frat boy party animal George W Bush, and said: "President Blutarsky was unavailable to be interviewed for this program." It was so perfect.

  • BYODB||

    Honestly, judging by the stuff they seem to be prosecuted for, I imagine they all host pretty kick ass coke-and-hooker parties when the public isn't watching.

  • Lowdog||

    Another reason Sessions is a PoS: he is against real reforms in the often pseudo-scientific field of forensics. I've been wondering for a while now, ever since we've learned how bullshit bite mark matching was, whether or not other forensics techniques such as bullet matching and fingerprinting might be a little suspect. Turns out, my hunch appears to have plenty of merit.

    See this article in The Nation for more info. (Long article, but good.)

  • John||

    Forensic "science" has put more innocent people in jail. There are entire areas of it that have been repeatedly shown to be complete bullshit. The one case where someone was put to death that I think there is a decent chance the person was innocent, was a conviction for murder and arson in Texas based on what is now known to be utter bullshit science that was invented by nonscientists for the specific purpose of showing fires to be arson. The state of forensic science and the credit it is given by juries thanks to bullshit TV shows is just terrifying.

  • sarcasmic||

    I wonder how many who work in the field know it's bullshit, and just don't care. From what I have seen, cops and prosecutors don't like to admit to being wrong. So when they catch the wrong guy, and know it's the wrong guy, they often try to convict the person anyway. As far as I'm concerned, a forensic "scientist" is just another lying cop who will say anything rather than admit to accusing the wrong guy.

  • Rhywun||

    Great, you've just ruined half the X-Files episodes.

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