White House

Trump, Sessions feud spills over into dispute over policy on criminal justice reform

Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks on the opioid and fentanyl crisis, Friday, July 13, 2018, in Portland, Maine.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks on the opioid and fentanyl crisis, Friday, July 13, 2018, in Portland, Maine. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ disconnect with his boss, President Donald Trump, is extending beyond their disagreement about the Russia probe to disagreeing on policy issues for which Sessions would normally speak for the administration — notably, prison reform.

The White House has embraced bipartisan legislation that would ease sentences and beef up prisoner re-entry and anti-recidivism programs. Sessions, on the other hand, says that will just create new victims and he has thrown his weight behind legislation to toughen and lengthen prison sentences.

“We need Congress to fix the law so that we can keep violent career criminals off of our streets,” Sessions told law enforcement officials in Little Rock, Arkansas earlier this month. “That shouldn’t be controversial.” He was referring to the Armed Career Criminal Act, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutionally vague in 2015, and which some Senate Republicans are rewriting.

Their “Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act” would impose a mandatory 15-year sentence for people convicted of illegal firearms possession who have three previous state or federal convictions for “serious felonies” that carry prison sentences of at least 10 years.

The bill would also expand the type of offenses that trigger the mandatory sentence to include certain non-violent crimes, like money laundering and high-dollar stock fraud, and some property crimes, like burglary.

“We should look for effective and proven ways to reduce recidivism, but we must also recognize that simply reducing sentences without reducing recidivism unfairly creates more victims,” Sessions said in Little Rock.

But at a time when Republicans and Democrats feel the nation spends too much money jailing too many people for far too long, Sessions’ support for longer mandatory sentences is at odds with a growing push for a different approach to crime _ and puts him at odds with his boss.

Trump has been furious at Sessions every since he recused himself from the investigation into possible Trump campaign ties to a Russian influence campaign during the 2016 campaign. Trump has said he considered Sessions’ decision to be a sign of disloyalty and the two have an unusually cold relationship for a president and the nation’s top law-enforcement official.

Sessions, however, remains adamant.

“There are still those who would have you believe we should release the criminals early, shorten sentences for serious federal traffickers, and go soft on crime. That would be bad for the rule of law, it would be bad for public safety, and it would be bad for the communities across America,” Sessions recently told law enforcement officials in Macon, Ga., earlier this month.

In a recent Twitter post, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, suggested Sessions’ hard line posture might hurt efforts to win White House support for a compromise prison and sentencing reform bill. The Justice Department has opposed both the House and Senate proposals even though Trump openly supports the House measure.

“Pres Trump wants something done on prison/crim justice reform. So do I,” Grassley tweeted. “will b important BIPARTISAN win for country, something many hv tried 2 accomplish for yrs. AG Sessions surely needs to support POTUS’ policy priorities, otherwise he’s UNDERMINING @realDonaldTrump.”

The Department of Justice declined a request for comment.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said that Trump has made clear he supports the prison reform legislation “that will ultimately make American communities safer and save taxpayers money. The president recognizes there are some injustices in the system that should be fixed.”

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said it ultimately won’t matter whether they have Sessions’ support or not.

“Listen, (Sessions) doesn’t have a vote on this one,” Scott said.

But Grassley’s sentiment is shared by criminal justice reform supporters who were stung by the Justice Department’s opposition to the bipartisan First Step Act, a House prison reform measure that passed 360-59 in May and has Trump’s backing.

The bill would authorize $250 million over 5 years to beef up prisoner re-entry and anti-recidivism programs in the federal prison system. Inmates who participate would earn credits toward early release. The bill would also require federal inmates to be imprisoned within 500 miles from their home and allow some to finish their sentences in halfway houses or in home confinement.

But in a July letter to White House officials, the Justice Department said the bill “would further and significantly erode our long established truth-in-sentencing principles, create impossible administrative burdens, effectively reduce the sentences of thousands of violent felons, and endanger the safety of law-abiding citizens and law enforcement officers.”

Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, noted that prison reform “was mentioned in the (president’s) State of the Union address. This is a domestic priority for this White House and Sessions is literally trying to get in the way.”

Sessions directly criticized the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 16-5 vote in February. He called it a “grave error,” in part, because the bill would loosen federal sentencing guidelines for repeat non-violent drug offenders and scrap the “three-strike” mandatory life in prison provision.

Although the bill never made it to the Senate floor for a vote, Senate negotiators are moving to include provisions of the bill in their compromise reform legislation.

Emma Dumain contributed to this report

Tony Pugh: 202-383-6013, @ TonyPughDC
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