What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Sens. Grassley, Durbin on ‘smarter’ criminal law, bipartisanship

The Senate is expected to take up criminal justice reform before year end. A proposed overhaul would lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, ban the shackling of pregnant prisoners and ensure inmates stay closer to family. Judy Woodruff talks to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., two advocates for the bill, about its provisions and rare bipartisan support.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the Senate will take up criminal justice reform before it leaves for the year.

    The FIRST STEP Act would address prison and sentencing reform, including lowering mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions, expanding recidivism reduction programs in prisons, and placing prisoners no more than 500 miles from their families.

    It has broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, and it has the backing of the White House.

    Joining me now, two senators who have been pushing this overhaul, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, who is the minority whip in the Senate.

    Gentlemen, good to have you both with us.

    Senator Grassley, it was just a few weeks ago that the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, was expressing not a lot of enthusiasm for this bill. What changed?

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Well, we just proceeded, as you have to do, through the legislative process.

    You know, you have to have 60 votes to get something done, so show me 60 votes. So we showed him 60 votes. How are you going to get by the president? So we negotiated with the president to get him on board, and he's on board. And then, how are you going to get it through the House of Representatives?

    We pre-conferenced it with the House of House of Representatives and Chairman Goodlatte. So it's kind of like how the legislative process works. We did everything that needed to be done. And once it got done, it seemed to me that there was no excuse for not bringing it up, and we probably got probably maybe 75 votes for it, at least, I would say.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Senator Durbin, there clearly were some modifications made of the bill. What was done to this bill, and who worked on this?

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    Well, I started six years ago, I believe, with Senator Mike Lee, and we realized we couldn't get to first base without the chairman of the committee, Chuck Grassley.

    We sat down and started working on changes, so that the bill could be supported by Senator Grassley. Along the way, Cory Booker joined us. We have had an amazing group of Democrats and Republicans. And, yes, the bill changed. It is not my original bill.

    I learned a long time ago, if you're determined to get your original bill without changes, you are never going to see it happen. We had to find compromises that didn't compromise the basic values we were fighting for.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Senator Grassley, as Senator Durbin is saying, there clearly were some changes made, some shift in language and in the substance of the bill.

    But there is still some opposition among your Republican colleagues. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas is saying, yes, he likes some of these changes, but he also says it still would allow for the early release of criminals who have committed violent offenses, bank robberies where they were using dangerous weapons, sexual assaults.

    How do you answer the criticisms like these?

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Well, he's wrong.

    First of all, there isn't anybody going to get out of prison as a result of our sentencing reform part of it. Everybody realizes, with mandatory minimums, there is some unfairness in it. And this is to address the unfairness issue.

    So, you might have a 25-year sentence, and somebody in prison feels it's not fair. So you go back to the prosecutor, before you even go to the judge. But between the prosecutor and judge, you can make a case that maybe you ought to have a 15-year sentence or a 10-year sentence in place.

    And if you convince the judge, that could happen. But you're not going to get out on the street as a result of a judge's decision. So, that's why I say that he, Senator Cotton, is wrong on that point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I asked about that because he's saying he's — he has yet to be satisfied on it.

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Well, he isn't going to be satisfied, and he knows it.

    And, today, I had this conversation with him. I said: "I just looked up the record. You and I vote together 92 percent of the time or 93 percent of the time."

    And he says, "Well, I must have been wrong 7 percent of the time."

    Well, so he was wrong 7 percent of the time, and he's wrong on this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Durbin, on the other hand, there's been opposition from liberal groups, who believe the sentencing rules, regulations, laws have been far too strict, that they have been too harsh. They have required people to serve time, much more time than they should have served.

    How does this legislation address their concerns?

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Well, it doesn't give them all they wanted or all that I want. But that's the nature of a bipartisan compromise.

    But what it boils down to is this. We went and said, when it came to the sentencing provisions, that if you have committed a nonviolent drug offense without the use of a weapon, and you are willing to cooperate with the government, with the prosecution, you will be eligible to be considered for a lower minimum sentence, eligible. No mandate on the judge. It's still up to their discretion when it comes to the criminal records, for example, of those before them.

    So there are some who would like to have gone further, and I did too. But in order to get this bill moving forward, with the support of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fraternal Order of Police, we have really struck an amazing balance here.

    We have got to take advantage of this when we can. It's seldom that you find these groups together on anything.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, and who was responsible for — I mean, who has been the main impetus behind this, Senator Durbin?

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Well, I introduced it with Senator Lee. We brought it to Senator Grassley. And it's been the Grassley-Durbin bill for some time now.

    But we're happy to have Senator Lee and Senator Booker with us. We have worked together on this, and, I might add, with support from the White House that has been absolutely essential.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And…

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Let me add to what he said about the White House by saying that Jared Kushner, son-in-law of the president and adviser to the president, is a big force in moving this bill along to where it is now, and particularly a big force in getting the president to back it.

    And the president has quite a reputation for being tough on law enforcement. And we all know he is tough on law enforcement. And to have his backing — and he had a news conference, and he says, my pen's ready to sign this bill.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Grassley, how do you explain the shift, though, in attitudes over the last few decades?

    I mean, we all remember the time — or many of us remember the time when there was this very tough-on-crime, war-on-drugs attitude. There seems to have been a shift in thinking over the last 20 or so years.

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Yes.

    Part of it is because of the high cost of incarceration. Part of it is a result of Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, maybe some other states proving that, if you train people and make them productive citizens when they get out, you don't have them returning to the high costs of prison, and you also don't have as much crime, because you have got to commit another crime to get put back in prison.

    And then the — just looking at some of the unjustified sentences that were given, and feeling that we have got to be more fair if you're going to have respect for the judicial system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator — Senator Durbin, what would you add to that? How do you think attitudes have changed? Why have they changed?

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    Well, we have gotten a little bit smarter.

    We want to make our neighborhoods safer. That's for sure. We want to reduce the prospect that somebody who's dangerous is going to be on the streets. But we realized that having someone serve 20 years or a life in prison for the simple sale of narcotics, without a violent crime, without a gun, really went too far.

    We want to be a lot smarter. And, as Chuck said, we have learned from a lot of states that there are things you can do and make available to prisoners so we're certain, when they leave, that they're not going to commit another crime. That avoids another victim, another incarceration, another bill for the taxpayers.

    And it ends up with a more productive life. That's the goal, criminal sentencing on one side, prison reform on the other part of the bill. Those two together, I think, have been proven by many states to be very effective.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Senator Grassley, clearly some bipartisanship at work here.

    Is this a sign of things to come, or is this a one-time-only situation?

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    No, I think it's a good sign.

    And the Senate promotes some bipartisanship, because you have got to have 60 votes. But people of good faith towards each other can get together. And the Senate isn't as divided as people in the grassroots think it is.

    We do speak to each other. We work together. And so I think it's good news for the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Durbin, what about you? Do you think we're going to see any more to have the two parties working together on significant legislation?

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    You will.

    And even as we were waiting for this program to start, Chuck and I were talking about other legislature — legislative activity that we share the same views on. We're going to continue to work together. We trust one another.

    And I couldn't be here with this bill without him, and I'm not sure he would have the Democratic support without myself, with Senator Booker and others. So it proves it can be done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How about the border wall, immigration?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    That's a little bit of division.

    But you're never going to get 100 senators or even two friends in the United States Senate of different parties to agree on everything. But you work together when you can. And this is an example of where we're working together.

    And we might have views on different things, but we're still going to speak to each other and get along and see what we can do together. And there's no end to that, if you want to be a good senator.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    It's a Midwestern thing, Judy.

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    Yes, that's right, too.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I had to ask.

    Senator Dick Durbin, Senator Chuck Grassley, thank you both.

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    OK. Thank you very much.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest