Last year, the House, the Senate, and President Obama came extraordinarily close to passing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a sweeping overhaul of the federal criminal-justice system, only to see last-minute jitters – fueled in part by the political current of the presidential race – derail the effort.
This year, the Koch network and its congressional allies have high hopes that Congress will enact those changes, which include reducing the mandatory minimum for drug offenses, limiting the use of solitary confinement on juvenile prisoners, and requiring federal prisons to offer programs aimed at reducing recidivism.
“We’re doubling down on that,” said Mark Holden, co-chairman of the Koch Seminar Network. “We’re not optimistic that it will happen before summer, but there still seems to be a lot of support for it. . . . We’re hopeful that in a non-election year, with a president who really wants to be a game-changer, this could be a huge game-changer.”
Republican senator Mike Lee says his support for sentencing reform stems from his days as a federal prosecutor, where he saw a defendant, a young man in his mid 20s and a father of two young children, sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling three “dime bag” quantities of marijuana over a 72-hour period. Federal sentencing laws required the judge to give him 55 years, a stiffer penalty than some violent offenders receive.
“When he was sentenced, the judge disagreed with the sentence he was about to impose. . . . He uttered a few words that have stuck with me ever since: ‘Only Congress can change this problem,’” Lee said.
Holden said that this year’s efforts to persuade doubtful lawmakers will focus on citing successful recidivism-reduction programs that generated results in their own backyards: “People that oppose it, by and large, come from states where this has all worked.”
A major obstacle to last year’s passage was the skeptical view of Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is now President Trump’s nominee to be attorney general.
Lee said he’s talked to the Trump team, pitching the reforms to the president who ran on a traditional law-and-order platform. “We’re working on it, ” Lee said. “I don’t want to go into any more detail than that, other than to say I have reason to be hopeful.”
Some of the other advocates of criminal-justice reform at the Koch network’s winter meeting were blunter about Sessions’s role in the bill’s fate last year. “I’m glad they got him out of the Senate, because they got him out of the way,” said Doug Deason, a Texas businessman, political donor, and longtime advocate for prison reform. “You see the ads that they’re running on him, and you would think he was the saint of criminal-justice reform.”
Holden is quick to point out that Sessions was an original co-sponsor of enacted legislation that dramatically reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, and he feels that Sessions will see the benefits of broader sentencing reform.
“What happened last time was election-year politics and all of the unusual aspects of the Republican primary,” Holden said. On Sessions, he predicts, “I think he’ll do the right thing.”