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Fate of bipartisan bill on criminal justice reform uncertain

A rare bipartisan agreement on a bill, which reduces mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, turned into a heated exchange after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his opposition to the bill. The bill was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. NPR’s justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It’s rare these days to hear the Democrats and Republicans in Congress have found common ground on just about anything. But this week there was bipartisan agreement on a bill to make major changes to the criminal justice system, especially for nonviolent drug offenders. This bill has been years in the making the Senate Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approved it. But on the eve of the committee’s vote, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it quite clear he does not support this bill that has triggered an ugly war of words and the fate of this bill is now very uncertain. Joining me now with more is NPR’s justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Can you talk about what’s in the bill – what’s working its way through committee and what did they agree on?

  • CARRIE JOHNSON:

    Three main elements of this bill. One, is to put more power, more discretion in the hands of individual judges to determine a sentence based on the individual in front of them. Second, this idea that some of the drug laws were much more punishing in the past than they are now. And so, there’s a valve in this bill that would give about 3,000 people the ability to petition a judge for a reduced sentence, getting them out of prison earlier. And finally, another bucket that would allow people who are in for nonviolent offenses to get good time credit for taking programming before they leave prison to ease their return to society.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This is something that liberals as well as libertarians are in agreement on?

  • CARRIE JOHNSON:

    Yeah there’s been an unusual consensus. Everyone from Koch Industries and the Koch Brothers to the American Civil Liberties Union to the Cato Institute has come together over the last five years or so in D.C. around major elements of the justice system. The notion that we’re locking up too many people, it’s too expensive, and we need to do more to prepare people for life outside prison because of course about 90% of inmates, 95% eventually leave prison.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Alright. What was the attorney general’s primary concern?

  • CARRIE JOHNSON:

    The attorney general sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on which he used to sit when he was a senator. Earlier this week, Jeff Sessions says he has grave concerns about this legislation. He thinks now, in the midst of an opioid epidemic, is the wrong time in his view to go soft on drug offenders. And he thinks that violent offenders can be released from prison and take advantage of this legislation. That has been enormously controversial.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And this also provoked a tweet that I want to read from Chuck Grassley. He said, ‘Incensed by sessions letter that attempt to undermine Grassley-Durbin, the bipartisan criminal justice reforms. This Bill deserves thoughtful consideration before my committee. AGs execute laws, Congress writes them.’This is a personal affront to him.

  • CARRIE JOHNSON:

    It was remarkable, Hari. Chuck Grassley said at the hearing that he considered Jeff Sessions a friend. He actually worked very hard to get just Jeff Sessions confirmed as attorney general. Grassley said last year when the president wanted to fire Jeff Sessions over his recusal from the Russia investigation, Grassley stuck his neck out for Jeff Sessions and this was no way to treat a friend. In fact, earlier today I checked in with Grassley his office. Grassley is still angry at Jeff Sessions. He said Jeff Sessions promised to help him with this bill, he’s gone back on his word and he needs to do better.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Carrie Johnson of NPR. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • CARRIE JOHNSON:

    My pleasure.

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