Prison reform has suddenly become the latest subject for a White House and Justice Department battle as advisor Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are at odds on the matter. Sessions apparently thrives on conflict. He is fighting on many fronts against those who oppose his views regarding drugs, prison reform, and policies to protect the safety of US citizens against criminals and lawless chaos.
The opposition forces are well armed and prepared for a fight. His foes include powerful bipartisan members of the House and Senate, State Governors, Republican Party influencers, and organized faith leaders.
Controversy surrounds Sessions and his position on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRA). Introduced by conservative Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and leading liberal Senator Dick Durbin, the prison reform bill has 25 Senate co-sponsors, 13 Republicans, and 12 Democrats.
The bill includes clauses which would prohibit many mandatory drug sentencing rules. It also provides for expansion of prison education, workforce training, and drug treatment programs in prisons. Current law often impacts low-level non-narcotic drug offenders, imposing lengthy sentences for violation of federal marijuana statutes and other non-violent crimes.
The day before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote to approve the bill, moving it closer to a floor vote, Sessions sent a letter to Grassley adamantly opposing the bill.
“In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission.” Sessions wrote.
“Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.” The bill was approved by the Committee by a 16-5 margin.
On Jan. 11th Sessions attended a White House listening session to discuss new prison reform legislation. Jared Kushner organized the meeting and most attendees were supportive of new prison reform law. Sessions views are clear in a statement made as he was rescinding the Cole memorandum.
“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States and the previous issue of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission.” He also wrote in an earlier letter opposing reform that,
“it would reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals, including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms.”
Recently, the White House has sent Congress its guidance for prison reform but declined to fully support the Grassley bill, giving Sessions hope for an ally. The sticking point for the Trump administration is the reform of sentencing guidelines contained in the bill. According to Reuters, a White House official told reporters “The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done. By doing this in smaller bits and pushing prison reform now, this has a better chance of getting done.”
Sessions has also had recent run-ins with other legislators, specifically Republican Senator Corey Gardner (R-CO) and Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) over his draconian stances on marijuana.
Sessions is also clearly at odds with a House resolution introduced by Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) and co-sponsored by 10 additional Reps., 7 Democrats, and 3 Republicans. HR 4779, known as the REFER Act, would protect both medical and recreational cannabis businesses and consumers who are licensed and operate legally in jurisdictions where state cannabis laws and regulations are in effect.
Lee stated, “I’m proud to introduce the REFER Act, which will prevent the Attorney General and others in the administration from stifling the budding cannabis industry. If the federal government chooses to interfere in these state matters, it is up to Congress to prevent this harmful overreach.”
Sessions position on federal enforcement and prosecution of marijuana is quite clear. In a January 4th letter to all US Attorneys, Sessions reiterated his stance, citing the Controlled Substances Act. The CSA was passed in 1970 and signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
“These statutes reflect Congress’s determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime. In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws, with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions” Sessions wrote in the letter.
Marijuana and prison reforms go hand in hand. Publicly traded prison companies like CoreCivic (CXW) saw revenues drop as several states either decriminalized marijuana to some degree or legalized it all together. Stricter laws mean more inmates and more revenues for prisons. CoreCivic almost exclusively donates to Republican candidates in an effort to keep harsh laws. Prison reform also seeks to prevent repeat offenders, yet prisons profit off of repeat offenders as it adds to the inmate population.
Sessions though is losing credibility with many Republicans. He remains at odds with many legislators and Jared Kushner at the White House, and large donors who support many of the policies he disdains. These feuds seem to have no end, it feels like we are watching the Hatfield and McCoy’s fight it out until both families are destroyed.