Less than one month ago, there was no hope for any meaningful criminal justice reform to make its way out of this Republican-controlled Congress. But last week a large, bipartisan block of members of the House Judiciary Committee passed a narrow prison reform bill aimed at stemming the recidivism rate. That tees it up for a floor vote, even as many political watchers have predicted most major legislative efforts will be put on hold until after voters go to their polling booths in November.
“This is just a money and morals issue for me,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who is one of the bill’s lead authors, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s about money that we’re saving by not only redirecting that in our prison system, but also the moral aspect that everybody deserves a second chance.”
Collins was able to revive the effort by massaging the bill with his ally Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who represents Brooklyn and Queens and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. The legislation sailed through their House committee by a lopsided 25-5 vote, but it faces stiff opposition in the Senate from those who want it to go much further in overhauling the nation’s system of mandatory minimum prison sentences that critics say constrain the nation’s judges and have left prisons brimming with nonviolent drug offenders.
“I’m disappointed, but it doesn’t change anything that we have to do over here,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tells Rolling Stone. “[Senate Minority Whip Dick] Durbin and I are working together to make sure that if there’s going to be anything done on criminal justice reform, it’s going to contain sentencing reform.”
For the time being, Collins seems fine with the scope of the bill.
“What we have here is a president and administration who is willing to work on prison reform and still open to the conversation later on sentencing reform. That’s just going to take a lot longer to do,” Collins, the bill’s Republican sponsor, argues. “That’s just going to be another issue for another day that I’m willing and committed to work on. Let’s do what we can do now.”
Collins says they were able to revive the bill in the House because they narrowed its scope to win over Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“We’re not dealing with sentencing reform at this point, and he understood that,” Collins said.
In response to reports that Sessions supported the measure, a DOJ official tells Rolling Stone that Sessions did not, in fact, sign off on the House bill, and that he opposes it. The official refused to elaborate on reasons why.
But Grassley maintains the attorney general is irrelevant on the issue – even though he’s the top law enforcement official in the nation.
“We don’t have to worry about Senator Sessions,” Grassley tells Rolling Stone.
“We don’t have to worry about Senator Sessions,” he repeated. “You don’t have to know why. We just don’t have to worry about him.”
Grassley’s staff refused to answer questions as to whether the senator has been assured that Trump would sign a mandatory minimum bill over Sessions’ protest, or, on a more sinister note, whether Grassley believes Sessions will remain in his current position as attorney general.
Independent of Sessions, however, it’s unclear whether there’s enough support in Congress to pass criminal justice reform that leaves mandatory minimums untouched. Supporters of the House bill argue that doing anything to help current prisoners escape the incarceration cycle is better than not sitting idly by.
“[Sessions] is an impediment, and I’d suspect Trump’s people are basically against sentencing reform,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) tells Rolling Stone. “To get sentencing reform is probably going to necessitate a Democratic Congress, so that’ll come next year. There’s no reason to have people sit in a jail for another year when they don’t need to be.”
This post has been updated with new information from the Department of Justice.