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Kiriakou writes: "Just when you thought there would actually be sentencing reform, the whole thing goes up in a puff of smoke. Well, I thought there would be sentencing reform. And apparently so did a lot of members of Congress from both parties. And apparently so did Donald Trump. So what happened? Politics happened."

John Kiriakou. (photo: The Washington Post)
John Kiriakou. (photo: The Washington Post)

Sentencing Reform Isn't Dead, It's Encumbered by Idiots

By John Kiriakou, Reader Supported News

25 August 18


ust when you thought there would actually be sentencing reform, the whole thing goes up in a puff of smoke. Well, I thought there would be sentencing reform. And apparently so did a lot of members of Congress from both parties. And apparently so did Donald Trump. So what happened? Politics happened.

Here’s the background, as crazily bipartisan and progressive as it may sound. Elements of the last three Congresses have passed a version of sentencing reform, in general calling for more money to be spent on job training and addiction counseling in federal prisons. The legislation has passed the House three times, but it has been bottled up in the Senate each time. First, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who was Senate Majority Leader at the time, just didn’t like some of the language. In the next two Congresses, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who became Majority Leader, didn’t want to give Barack Obama a legislative victory.

When Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, he asked his son-in-law and “advisor,” Jared Kushner, to take a look at the issue. Sentencing reform is personally important to Kushner because his father Charles was found guilty of 18 felony counts of campaign finance fraud, income tax evasion, and witness tampering in 2005. He was sentenced to two years in a minimum security prison camp, and he served 14 months.

Kushner partnered with sentencing hawk Jeff Sessions and, to everybody’s surprise, Sessions endorsed a Senate bill called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The bill was written by Kushner and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) with the support of Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and it called for a complete overhaul of sentencing guidelines, shorter sentences, an end to mandatory minimum sentences, and money for rehabilitation.

To get the Republican-controlled House on board, Kushner convinced Speaker Paul Ryan to allow the Senate to merge its bill with the House-passed First Step Act, which would do essentially the same thing the original Senate bill would have done. Ryan agreed, and the whole thing moved back to the Senate.

In order to placate Senators Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) two voices on the left who complained that the compromise bill didn’t go far enough, Durbin promised that their concerns would be addressed in conference committee. Durbin told The Hill newspaper, “If we have a bill that has such overwhelming bipartisan support, deals not only with criminal sentencing, but prison reform, and the support of the White House, there’s no reason we shouldn’t consider it this year. The last time we had a sentencing reform bill ... was almost ten years ago. That’s how often you get these opportunities. So if we have a bipartisan bill supported by the White House, I hope we can seize on the opportunity.” So the compromise was made. We thought.

What nobody had thought about was Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the aggressive, arrogant, and quietly racist junior senator who sees himself as the Republican Party’s next great hope. Cotton, according to Politico, “is going all-out to defeat a last ditch effort to pass sentencing reform before this year’s midterm elections.” Cotton called the reform bill a “jailbreak” that would “let serious felons back on the streets.” He added, “The president went to Singapore and agreed with the Singaporeans that we should give the death penalty to drug dealers. I can’t imagine the president wants to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers.” It went unstated that most “drug dealers” in US prisons are African-American. And African-Americans have been disproportionately hit by mandatory minimum sentences.

Cotton is taking a big risk here, and the risk is about much more than just sentencing reform. It’s about Cotton’s influence with the president and his future in the Republican Party. We know that Trump relies on Cotton for advice. And we know that Cotton has successfully – and singlehandedly – blocked other important legislation, including comprehensive immigration reform, the border adjustment tax, and a slimmed-down immigration proposal earlier this year. In the short term, Cotton has won. McConnell has taken a vote on the measure off the legislative calendar. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that a vote on sentencing reform this year was “impossible.”

It is possible, though, that Cotton has bitten off more than he can chew this time. This time Trump wants a bill. This time Trump’s son-in-law is involved. And this time the Koch brothers want a bill passed, too. In a detailed fact-checking rebuttal to a Cotton op-ed in The New York Times attacking the legislation as “soft on crime,” a top official at Koch Industries said, “I’d like to see Sen. Cotton have a change of heart. But if not, I hope he loses. Because he’s on the wrong side of history.” Indeed he is.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act – a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration's torture program.

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