Senate Moves Forward With Bipartisan Bill to Rein in Jeff Sessions

Co-sponsors Rand Paul and Patrick Leahy call out the Attorney General's backwards approach to criminal justice, the drug war and mandatory minimums

Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to roll back years of criminal justice reform – but Congress is fighting back. Credit: Zach Gibson/Getty

Bluntly calling out Attorney General Jeff Sessions' hard-line stance on criminal justice as "wrong," a "mistake" and "aggressive," Senators Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, and Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, have pledged to fight for sentencing reform.

"We've been working on trying to get rid of some of the injustice of mandatory minimums and give judges more discretion," Paul said in a telephone press conference Wednesday. The Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced to the Senate by Paul, Leahy and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, would empower federal judges to give out sentences below the mandatory minimum in certain cases. The law could go a long way towards neutralizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions' memo, issued earlier this month, directing prosecutors to seek the toughest possible sentences, even in cases of non-violent drug offenders. The memo rolls back the criminal justice reforms that took place during the Obama administration. 

At the time, Sessions defended the memo by citing President Trump's broadly-defined vow to protect the American public from threats both foreign and domestic. "This is a key part of President Trump's promise to keep America safe," Sessions said. "If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your conduct."

Paul and Leahy pointed out that rather than keep Americans safe, the drug war Sessions seems eager to revive ties judges' hands and needlessly ruins lives, all while being very costly to taxpayers. "We know it doesn't work, now we're trying to get something done that does work," Paul said.

Paul listed a few examples of shocking prison terms handed down thanks to mandatory minimums. There's John Horner, a father of three serving 25 years for selling some of his own painkillers to a friend who turned out to be a police informant. There's Weldon Angelos, who got 55 years after getting caught selling some weed – a drug that is legal in many parts of the country.

Leahy, a former prosecutor, emphasized the high cost of imprisoning so many people for so long, a strategy that has yet to rid America of either illegal drugs or crime.

"The idea that, 'We've got to stiffen the penalties and crime will stop,' we've found it doesn't work," Leahy said. "This is extraordinarily expensive... Then, there's less money to go to violent, serious crime."

Paul pointed out that putting more people in prison is also not a smart way to address opioid addiction. "In my opinion we should treat drug addiction more as a health crisis and less as an incarceration problem," he said. "There's a problem, but locking everyone up isn't the solution. Instead, "families, churches and communities" should band together to "cure the ravages of addiction," Paul said.

Criminal reform advocates largely support the Senate's sentencing reform efforts. Kevin Ring, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, tells Rolling Stone that the Justice Safety Valve Act goes further than previous bipartisan efforts to reform America's expensive, vastly overcrowded prison system.

"I think it's a pretty bold move that is an effective repeal of mandatory minimums," he says.

Plus, it's high time for Congress to nail down reforms. Sessions himself noted in the memo that his policy shift "simply utilizes the tools Congress has given us." So it's up to Congress to fix the situation by changing the law, Ring says.

"If [legislators] don't think these laws should be enforced, the answer is to take them away. Because if you give somebody a hammer, they're going to use it," Ring says.

It's not clear what would happen if Paul and Leahy manage to wrangle the bill through Senate and onto the President's desk. In typically schizoid fashion, the Trump administration has jumped all over the place on drug policy and criminal justice reform. The president's embrace of President Rodrigo Duterte, who unleashed literal death squads on his own people in a crusade to end drug use, does not bode well for sane drug policy issuing from the White House. Neither has Trump's repeated claim that building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. would solve the country's opioid crisis.

But Paul indicated that there are people in the administration who support reform. "If we get something out of the Senate there's a reasonable chance the President might sign it," he said. A companion bill is being introduced in the House of Representatives. 

Bill Piper, Senior Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, tells Rolling Stone that this is a perfect opportunity for the White House to stake out a position on prison reform and show who's really steering America's criminal justice and drug policy.

"It's worth noting that there's a disconnect between Jeff Sessions and the President, and it's not clear who is actually in charge," Piper says. "The president put Jared Kushner in charge of his task force for looking at criminal justice reform – Jeff Sessions preemptively undermined the work Jared Kushner is doing. So does the administration oppose reform? Because it's already clear where Jeff Sessions stands."

With the exception of outliers like Sessions, criminal justice reform is one of the few issues on which there's bipartisan consensus.

"This is not a Republican or Democrat idea, this is a common sense idea," Leahy said. 

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How to Contact: 

Contact Senator Patrick Leahy's D.C. Office: (202) 224-4242

Contact Senator Rand Paul's D.C. Office: (202) 224-4343

Contact Senator Jeff Merkley's D.C. Office: (202) 224-3753