Singapore and China don’t have a drug problem, President Trump likes to tell people. “They have the death penalty.” White House insiders say that Trump wishes the U.S. had a law that authorized executing all drug dealers, although he admits it would be impossible to pass such a law. But he consistently takes a hard line on drug crimes, making no bones about his desire to purge the country of drug pushers. And just two weeks ago, in a speech on the drug crisis in New Hampshire, the president said the federal government is “wasting our time” if it isn’t willing to put some traffickers to death.
Good material to stir up the voters. But we do know that the president supports requiring five year mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers who sell as little as five grams of fentanyl, the substance now responsible for high numbers of drug-related deaths.
Strong supporters of the president’s position includes most of the law enforcement community. His biggest obstacle may be his son-in-law.
In the meantime, both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, with the backing of both Republicans and Democrats, have passed bills which would reform sentencing laws to release multiple federal prisoners before their sentences are completed. The bills also eliminate many of the harsh sentencing provisions passed in the 1980s and 90s mandating stiff sentences for multi-offenders. In addition to reforming sentencing laws, the bills have provisions to reform the penal system. Those bills await debate in both houses and, like most such legislation, have both ardent supporters and opponents. Opponents include much of the law-enforcement community and the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions.
Although Trump has paid lip service to the legislation, the results of enactment would certainly fly in the face of his harsh lock-em-up rhetoric.
The Senate bill was opposed in the Judiciary Committee by five Republicans, including Texas Senator John Cornyn (R, TX), a member of the Senate leadership. Cornyn, for one, does not oppose the less-controversial prison reform section, which includes provisions which would increase opportunities for education, drug rehabilitation and job training for prisoners, all of which could aid in prisoner “reentry” and cut recidivism rates. But Cornyn believes that the time is not right to reduce sentences, particularly for drug dealers who profit by spreading death and destruction. Republican opposition, together with the opposition of the Administration, probably means the bill is dead, as Majority Leader McConnell will be loath to bring anything to the Senate floor that pits Republicans against each other.
Back to son-in-law Jared Kushner, a top advisor to the president on a variety of issues, who has a different idea. He supports broad-based criminal justice reform, including reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and releasing offenders who have served much of their time. According to a recent article in The New York Times, Kushner and Sessions have reached a compromise: Kushner continues to push for prison reform, while the Justice Department would lead administration opposition to a broader overhaul of the criminal justice system, particularly sentencing loopholes by which fairly convicted felons can avoid serving the intended duration of their terms.
Sessions, in a recent letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), said the bill “would reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals, including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms.” Grassley, a strong supporter of many of the Trump Administration’s legislative efforts, was furious, and is, according to Senate staffers, anxious to try to proceed with at least part of the legislation. Grassley has supported much of the Trump agenda in the Senate, and is a crucial link in the chain of confirming federal judges, so his differences on criminal justice reform do pose a problem for the administration.
So as a compromise with Grassley, the White House is backing Kushner’s efforts for prison overhaul but are ambivalent about criminal justice reform, despite Trump’s outspoken position on drug dealers—and despite other opponents to criminal justice reform, including much of the law enforcement community, who believe that most people who would be let out of federal prison before their sentences run would be just those drug dealers that President Trump believes should rot in prison.
Justice Department insiders tell me that they are concerned that if just the prison reform provisions reach the floor of both houses of Congress and if they pass and get to a conference to resolve differences, that many of the provisions for sentencing reform now opposed by the attorney general and the law enforcement community, may get slipped back in. If that were to happen and a bill which includes much of what the President opposes, were to land in the Oval Office for signature, pressure from his son-in-law might just be enough to get it signed.
On the other hand, given the president’s strong belief that the opioid crisis is a major contributor to the 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, such a bill would be a prime candidate for a veto. Again, sources within the Justice Department would like to avoid such a scenario, and will, I am told, exert maximum pressure to see that the bills remain dormant for another year.
Let’s hope Jared doesn’t change his father-in-law’s mind.
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