Lenient sentencing legislation clears committee but with mortal wounds

As expected, the lenient sentencing bill — “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” — pushed by a bipartisan group of Senators cleared the Judiciary Committee this week. Unexpectedly, at least to me, five Republicans voted against it, including Majority Whip John Cornyn, who sponsored the legislation two and a half years ago.

The vote was 16-5. In addition to Cornyn, Sens. Hatch, Cruz, Sasse, and Kennedy voted no. Six Republicans voted yes: Chairman Grassley and Sens. Graham, Lee, Flake, Crapo, and Tillis.

With committee Republicans this divided and the administration opposed to the bill, it seems certain that Majority Leader McConnell will not bring up the leniency legislation. I think it is dead this year, which may explain Chairman Grassley’s angry and misguided attack on Attorney General Sessions.

The defection of Cornyn had to be devastating to Team Leniency. But the Majority Whip has always been concerned primarily with prison reform — the corrections portion of the bill — not sentencing reduction. Cornyn seems to have concluded that his quest for federal prison reform is best served through stand alone legislation on the subject, rather than by inclusion in a highly controversial bill whose chances of enactment he must have thought were slim.

Cornyn is right. Indeed, the White House has expressed support for federal prison reform legislation. Here’s an opportunity for true bipartisanship.

Unfortunately, the prison reform provisions of the current bill would bring reduced sentencing in through the back door. Federal prisoners could obtain substantial reductions by participating in various rehabilitation programs.

If this loophole is closed, the remaining prison reform provisions in the soon-to-be-stalled leniency legislation will be worthy of support. Whether Democrats would support such paired down legislation is another matter. They specialize in demanding almost the whole loaf, even when in the minority.

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