Prison, sentencing reform push to wait until after midterms

August 23, 2018 - 6:04 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and Senate leaders agreed Thursday to hold off on compromise criminal justice reform legislation until after the midterm elections.

The delay is intended to head off a nasty debate in the lead-up to the midterms and give supporters more time to hash out details and rally support.

The agreement was reached during a series of meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House, where Trump met with top aides, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to discuss the proposals, which include prison reform measures aimed at reducing recidivism as well as sentencing reform measures that would affect policies like mandatory minimum sentencing.

The meeting came as the simmering rift between Trump and Sessions exploded again into public view, with Trump saying in a TV interview that Sessions "never took control of the Justice Department" and Sessions issuing a statement saying he and the DOJ "will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."

Trump has been livid with Sessions since he recused himself from the investigation into Russian election interference.

Nevertheless, the dispute did not come up during the meeting, according to two people familiar with the conversation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private conversation.

A senior administration official said the president is on board with the prison reform proposals but raised concerns in the meeting about taking on more controversial sentencing reform issues.

Conservatives like Sessions and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have for years staunchly opposed sentencing reform efforts, with Cotton blasting the latest proposal as a "jailbreak" that would "let serious felons back on the streets."

The president is weary of supporting any policy that would leave him open to charges that he's "soft on crime," but appeared open-minded to the framework and seemed on board with each of the specific proposals included the plan, said the senior administration official, who was not authorized to discuss the conversation.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores appeared to dispute the characterization that Trump was open to sentencing reform.

"We're pleased the President agreed that we shouldn't support criminal justice reform that would reduce sentences, put drug traffickers back on our streets, and undermine our law enforcement officers who are working night and day to reduce violent crime and drug trafficking in the middle of an opioid crisis," she said in a statement.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump "remains committed to meaningful prison reform and will continue working with the Senate on their proposed additions to the bill."

Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, who has been leading the White House's criminal justice reform efforts, also traveled to Capitol Hill, where he met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate leaders, including John Cornyn, Mike Lee and Chuck Grassley. The president joined a second meeting by phone.

During the discussions, McConnell told the group that he was willing to allow a formal whip count on the proposal to gauge support — but only after the fall elections.

Ames Grawert, senior counsel with the New York City-based Brennan Center's Justice Program, criticized the delay on reform legislation, saying people continue to suffer from unfair sentencing laws.

"Progress is being stalled for the sake of politics, and it's not right," he said. "In a divided time, broad criminal justice reform remains overwhelmingly popular, and today the White House squandered an opportunity to get something meaningful done."


Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.