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New bars may block sentencing reform

A bicameral group of conservative congressmen on Wednesday pushed back against efforts to ease federal criminal sentencing laws in the U.S., arguing that it would hinder the prosecution of drug traffickers.

Republican senators David Vitter of Louisiana and Jeff Sessions of Alabama joined GOP Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas to announce their opposition to bipartisan legislation unveiled last month that would reform sentencing laws for non-violent criminals.

“Our law enforcement officials work hard every day to keep our families and communities safe from dangerous criminals, and it’s of the utmost importance to make sure the federal government doesn’t unnecessarily handcuff our law enforcement from being able to do their job,” Vitter said.

Smith said that “Congress should be wary” of the idea, and he took aim at the argument that easing sentencing laws could ease prison overcrowding. He added that federal prisoners make up 13 percent of the total U.S. prison population.

“What’s the pressing need to open the cell doors?” Smith said. “The downward trend in crime rates is due, at least in part, to the mandatory minimum prison terms set in the 1980s. Why push for a massive prison break when the penalties are working?”

The trio’s press conference Wednesday was a push-back to an April 28 roll-out of a Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act supported by top leaders of both parties in the House and Senate. That includes GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas, GOP Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 2 and No. 3 Senate Democrats, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That legislation is considered one of the few that could pass in a divisive election year with a crowded floor calendar. It would revise mandatory minimum laws for nonviolent offenders to grant judges more leniency in sentencing, eliminate mandatory life prison sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders, and introduce programs to help convicts re-enter society. It has been endorsed by the National District Attorneys Association.

But Vitter, Sessions and Smith said the bill eventually would release thousands of convicted federal drug traffickers and other federal felons because the majority of low-level, non-violent drug offenders are state prisoners, not federal.

“It is unlikely the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would provide relief to low-level drug offenders,” Vitter said. “Instead, this legislation would make broader, deeper reductions than those already imposed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and release dangerous criminals back into communities.”

The trio of lawmakers also announced Wednesday that they aren’t alone, trumpeting support from several law enforcement groups, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agents Association, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and the National Sheriffs Association, among others.

It is unclear whether Vitter and Sessions could block the bill except by using parliamentary measures, since some influential Republicans, such as Cornyn and Grassley, have already announced their support for it. Even politically vulnerable GOP members, such as Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark Kirk of Illinois, are supporting the effort, which would bring proponents near or at the critical threshold of 60 votes to advance the bill under Senate rules.

After a failed bid for governor of Louisiana last year, Vitter has announced he is leaving Congress when his current term ends in January. But Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, is not up for re-election until 2020 and could still be a powerful obstacle.

President Obama has signaled an eagerness to sign such reforms into law, saying in an April 23 radio broadcast that Congress should pass the reforms.

“The reason we have so many more people in prison than any other developed country is not because we have more criminals,” Obama said. “It’s because we have criminal justice policies, including unfair sentencing laws, that need to be reformed.”