Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley on Monday said he supported looking into sentencing reform, joining former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., libertarian-leaning senators such as Rand Paul, the White House and the billionaire Koch brothers, in a political odd-fellow effort to reform the criminal justice system.
Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, has long opposed reducing mandatory minimums, and was seen as a barrier to advancing any sort of sentencing reform legislation while at the committee’s helm.
“Over the last several months, I’ve been accused of being a roadblock to sentencing reform. Let me be clear. I have told my colleagues and the White House that I’d like to sit down and talk about how we can move forward,” Mr. Grassley said in prepared remarks Monday, where he laid out his committee’s priorities for the session. “I’m ready to address some of these issues.”
He reiterated that he wasn’t willing to do “an across-the-board cut in mandatory minimums,” but did agree that some should be cut, and perhaps some should be raised, such as for those who commit white-collar crimes. Mr. Grassley also spoke about the need for his committee to look into indigent defendants who are not provided with legal counsel, as the Constitution requires, when they are arrested on misdemeanors and may face jail time.
“As a result, potentially innocent individuals plead guilty to crimes,” Mr. Grassley said. “They also then accrue a criminal record, which causes them adverse consequences including difficulty finding a job and a greater criminal history that would be considered in any future sentencing determination.”
He said his committee would hold a hearing on the issue in the coming weeks.
Mr. Grassley’s stance aligns him with more liberal and libertarian groups, who have long advocated civil justice reforms. In February, Koch Industries, which is led by the billionaire conservative kingmaker Charles Koch, formed a coalition with the Center for American Progress — a bitter adversary on economic and tax issues — to champion proposals to reduce prison populations, reform sentencing guidelines and reduce people’s lapses back into criminal behavior.
On Monday, Koch Industries, which employs 60,000 workers in the U.S., mostly in manufacturing, dropped its criminal history question from its job applications, with the idea that it will give former felons a better chance of gaining employment, as they won’t be eliminated at the start of the process.
In February, Mr. Holder said his effort to reduce federal sentences for non-violent drug crimes, a program he dubbed “Smart on Crime,” was one of the major successes of his tenure.
The effort has been building traction in Congress with libertarian-leaning republicans such as Utah’s Mike Lee, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, joining with liberals including Sens. Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy. Those efforts were expected to face an uphill climb with Mr. Grassley, who took to the Senate floor this year to say the system wasn’t sending a huge uptick of nonviolent drug offenders to prison under lengthy mandatory minimums, and criticized the Senate proposal to change sentencing laws as possibly reducing sentences for terrorists who used drug trafficking to finance terrorism.
More conservative members in the Senate have been unwilling to pass reform in part because they are worried that altering the federal mandatory minimum for sentencing guidelines will negatively impact their political careers, said Dayle Carlson, a correctional consultant for Sentencing Experts.
“They have not been well-received by the Congress because most members are afraid that they will look soft on crime,” Mr. Carlson said.
Earlier this month, faith leaders in Iowa encouraged Mr. Grassley to embrace the various bipartisan bills in front of him and encouraged reintegration of people returning from prisons and jails. A group of more than 100 pastors, reverends, bishops and other faith leaders suggested in an April 20 letter that Mr. Grassley limit disproportionate sentences “particularly for drug offenses.”
“We believe justice can be better served and proportionality restored by lowering penalties,” the letter states. The unnecessarily lengthy incarceration of people with drug offenses has burdened the federal criminal justice system and produced increasing costs that are unsustainable.”
On Monday, Mr. Grassley seemed willing to negotiate — or at least sit down and listen to their concerns.
“I told a lot of people that are for sentencing reform that I want to sit down and talk to them,” said Mr. Grassley. “There is some talk going on, I don’t know how far its progressed at this point, at the staff level. But yes, I’m willing to do some legislation in that area.”
Mr. Grassley also said he supported having video cameras in the Supreme Court and wanted to examine the fairness of asset forfeiture by the police and federal law enforcement.
In addition, Mr. Grassley plans to introduce a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization bill this week. The bill, he said, has the support of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.
“Our bill will respond to issues highlighted by whistleblowers at last week’s hearing by increasing accountability and oversight in the office’s administration of the law,” Mr. Grassley said. “The bill also seeks to improve the treatment of youth under the act by bolstering its core protections, improving conditions for detained juveniles, and incorporating new science on adolescent development. We’re also looking to update the protections and programs already established in the law, and authorize funding for five years.”