Senators consider sentencing bill tweaks to satisfy sheriffs

November 29, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators are considering changes to criminal justice legislation to appease Republicans and law enforcement groups as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell weighs whether to bring the bipartisan legislation up for a vote before the end of the year.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Thursday that the bill’s supporters are looking at changes requested by the National Sheriffs’ Association, which has been lobbying for additional provisions to ensure violent criminals, sex offenders and certain drug traffickers aren’t prematurely released from prison.

Senators met with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in a private meeting Wednesday to discuss how to move forward on the legislation to revamp the nation’s sentencing laws.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said they are considering tweaks to the bill to appease around a dozen senators.

“We’re trying to see if we can make some changes, not major changes, to satisfy them,” Grassley said Thursday.

It’s unclear if the changes are really needed for passage, as supporters of the bill have argued that they would have the 60 votes needed if McConnell would just put the bill on the floor. And tweaking the bipartisan compromise to assuage some senators could mean losing votes elsewhere, endangering a successful vote. But McConnell typically eschews legislation that divides his caucus, and Republican senators have disagreed strongly on the criminal justice legislation.

Trump has endorsed the bill, which would boost rehabilitation efforts for federal prisoners and give judges more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug offenses. The president’s announcement earlier this month boosted prospects for the legislation, but his influence has only gone so far. McConnell has hesitated and a group of Republicans led by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton say it’s too soft on some offenders.

Cornyn, the lead vote-counter in the Senate, said a majority of Senate Republicans are either opposed to the bill or undecided on it. That doesn’t mean the bill would be rejected, since Democrats almost uniformly support it, but adding Republican “yes” votes could help persuade McConnell to put the legislation on the floor.

“That would help a lot if we could get the sheriffs onboard,” Cornyn said.

The National Sheriffs’ Association wrote Senate leaders earlier this month and requested that several items be added to the bill. Those included changes to ensure individuals convicted of serious gun crimes, heroin and fentanyl traffickers and a broad group of sex offenders would stay in prison. Supporters of the bill said the legislation would already keep those people incarcerated, in most cases, but were willing to make tweaks to satisfy dissenters.

Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, who has pushed the bill with Grassley since President Barack Obama’s administration, said they are looking at a list of additional crimes that would be excluded from eligibility for early release.

“That list is growing, but I don’t believe it’s including a lot of crimes that are very common,” Durbin said. “They are unusual, but they have political volatility to them, so we’re trying to figure out how to expand that list.”

Durbin added they have a “delicate political balance” and supporters are trying to find ways to keep that balance as they consider changes.

Other senators have requested additional revisions. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, wants legislation added that would renew local re-entry programs to reduce recidivism.

But some senators will never be won over. Cotton tweeted Thursday that supporters “need to fix all the bill’s problems — not just some of them — and release text so Senators and public can see.”

Cotton has loudly led the opposition to the bill, even sparring with his GOP colleague, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, about it on Twitter.

Holly Harris, executive director of the advocacy group Justice Action Network, says those fights, and division among the GOP caucus, will just get worse if the bill isn’t passed this year.

“The only way to address that is to vote on this bill and put it behind him,” Harris said of McConnell.

Harris added that if sheriffs concerns are addressed, she hopes “that will be enough for him to step in, settle this and allow this to go to the floor.”

Any legislation passed by the Senate would then have to be considered by the House. The Senate approach would also lower mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses and allow thousands of federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty. The life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or “three strikes,” would be reduced to 25 years.

Roughly 90 percent of prison inmates are held in state facilities and would not be affected by the legislation.