With Jeff Sessions gone as attorney general, one of the biggest impediments to criminal justice reform in Washington is out of the way, but the Trump administration is learning the Senate Republican conference is full of little Jeff Sessionses who remain bent on derailing efforts to change the nation’s prison system.
The White House is ramping up its effort to pass a sweeping prison-reform bill, even sending Vice President Mike Pence and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner to corral Senate Republicans in a closed-door meeting Tuesday. But the private meeting seems to have revealed more divisions than harmony in the party.
“The president is all in, and I think they’re very interested in seeing it done,” Sen. Capito (R-WV) told The Daily Beast afterwards. “I think there’s a lot of will, but there’s still a lot of pushback.”
One of the loudest opponents is Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), who remains a supporter of the tough-on-crime approach that was en vogue in the '90s. Back in 2016 he even teamed up with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions to kill prison reform, and to this day he remains a staunch opponent of relaxing sentences.
“We should not be letting out of prison early or reducing the sentence of repeat drug offenders or other serious or violent offenders,” Cotton told The Daily Beast.
“What started as an effort at prison reform to help prisoners get back on their feet when they leave prison, when they’ve paid their debt to society, has turned into a sentence leniency bill,” Cotton said. “I can support prison reform… I can’t support releasing serious, violent repeat felons early or cutting their sentences in the future.”
Cotton has raised the spectre of reform leading to sex offenders becoming eligible for early release, and at his request the Department of Justice sent his office an analysis of the legislation that backs up that claim.
Supporters of the bill, who say they can adjust the legislation to exclude sex offenders if the legislation makes it to the Senate floor, fear that Cotton is employing a delay tactic to prevent swift action on the bill in the last days of this session of Congress.
“I think the criminal justice bill has a lot of things that we really do need to do. There’s a lot of unfairness in the system, and I think that really putting people in jail for life for non-violent drug crimes is a mistake,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Daily Beast. “I think it will pass overwhelmingly if we get a vote.”
But if there’s enough opposition from Republicans, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t bring the bill up for a vote. He’s currently counting the votes to see if the issue truly divides his party or whether the Cotton clan is just a small, though vocal, minority of his party.
And Cotton and other naysayers dispute the notion that anyone involved in drug trafficking can even be classified as non-violent.
“It’s a trade that is synonymous with violence ultimately,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told The Daily Beast.
While many conservatives—from the Heritage Foundation to Grover Norquist’s anti-tax group—now champion prison reform, Rubio remains opposed and doubts they can win him over, though he’s open to listening to their appeals for support.
“I’m not sure there is anything [that can win me over], but I will listen to them. I respect the people working on it,” Rubio added.
“It’s an enormously complicated bill, and I don’t think it should be debated on Twitter,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told The Daily Beast.
Kennedy, who is on the Judiciary Committee, is calling on his party to scrap the bill and start over.
“I don’t support it because of the approach they’re taking. I believe if there is something wrong with our sentencing laws, if they’re unjust, that’s the issue we need to focus on. This bill assumes that they’re unjust,” Kennedy said. “And then it transfers all our power to a faceless bureaucracy where the decisions about who is released early are made with no transparency, and I think that’s an ass backwards way of doing it.”
Inside the closed-door meeting and in private meetings, Pence, Kushner and others have assured Republican senators that the president is convinced the bill is a political winner.
“As one person said, ‘You know President Trump is very much committed to this and President Trump is obviously committed to his reelection, he must think it’s good politics,’” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who is still on the fence himself, told The Daily Beast.
“I like to say that good policy is good politics.”