U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has just made his opposition to a bipartisan sentencing reform bill clear. Calling the legislation a “grave error,” he said the proposed changes would reduce the sentences of “a highly dangerous cohort of criminals.”
The primary change proposed in the bill is to reduce prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders. It would also, however, get rid of the controversial federal three-strikes law, which mandates life sentences after defendants are convicted of three qualifying felonies. It would also raise prison sentences for other offenses, such as federal domestic violence crimes and trafficking in fentanyl-laced heroin.
Sessions made his opposition clear in a letter to his former colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. The bill was introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers last fall.
Sessions has a long history of opposing similar reforms, even those directed at saving non-violent drug offenders from mass incarceration. As a senator, he helped kill a similar reform bill despite its bipartisan popularity with his colleagues.
In 1996, he threw his weight behind an Alabama bill that would have made the death penalty mandatory for certain marijuana traffickers. That bill would have been unconstitutional because the Supreme Court has said the death penalty cannot be made mandatory and is “grossly disproportionate” in non-homicide cases.
Sessions has also blamed marijuana for fueling the opioid epidemic and has withdrawn the Cole memo, which assured states that federal law enforcement would not interfere with the legalization and regulation of marijuana.
Last year, Sessions also withdrew federal guidance that lessened the effect of harsh mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent drug users. Instead, he urged federal prosecutors to charge people with the most serious provable offense, which would trigger many of those sentences. Critics argue that such sentences disproportionately affect minority communities.
If the sentencing reforms are passed, it will be Session’s legal duty to enforce the law as the will of Congress. The Judiciary Committee is still holding hearings on the bill but could send it to the full Senate for a possible vote as early as this week.