Right and Left Unite on Drug Sentencing. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Will Senator Grassley kill the Smarter Sentencing Act?

From the Marshall Project. By Christie Thompson. Filed12:17 p.m. 11.17.2014.

As advocates of criminal justice reform cheer the growing bipartisan support for changes in drug-sentencing laws, one tough-on-crime senator remains unconvinced. Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, is a long-time champion of the mandatory minimum sentences that have been blamed for filling American prisons with large numbers of non-violent offenders. And when the new, Republican-controlled Senate convenes in January, Grassley, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will play a key role in deciding what crime legislation reaches the Senate floor.

That’s left many wondering: could his promotion be a dead end for sentencing reform?

The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, has attracted such conservative cosponsors as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee. It brings together the Heritage Foundation and the ACLU, the Obama administration and much of the Republican 2016 presidential field. But not Senator Grassley.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who introduced the bill with Republican Senator Mike Lee, hopes the bill is voted on in this session, before Grassley has a chance to stop it, according to a spokesperson.

Others aren’t so optimistic about the bill’s chances. “The Smarter Sentencing Act is dead,” says lobbyist Greg Mitchell, whose previous clients have included Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the ACLU National Prison Project and the Open Society Policy Center. Mitchell is currently working with a group of former federal prosecutors and Republican lawmakers on federal prison reform. “Grassley is not going to schedule that bill for markup. He has already made it clear that he does not support that and thinks it’s dangerous to public safety.”

There are other criminal justice changes for which Grassley has shown more enthusiasm. He’s been outspoken on the abuses of asset forfeiture and recently expressed concern over the police shooting of an unarmed Virginia man. Most significantly, he was a co-sponsor of Republican Senator John Cornyn’s Federal Prison Reform Act, which would give inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes the opportunity to earn early release through completion of certain “recidivism reduction” programs like classes and in-prison jobs. It aimed to bring state-level policies being used to reduce recidivism and prison populations to the federal system. The bill has since been combined with other legislation into a larger package of reforms co-sponsored by Cornyn and Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

Mitchell says proposals like the Federal Prison Reform Act, which have been his firm’s main focus, are easier for lawmakers like Grassley to get behind because they require inmates to “earn their way out rather than just giving them a sentencing reduction up front. I think with Grassley as chairman now the prospects of the Prison Reform Bill are better.”

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