Cory Booker Signals Slim Hopes For Grassley Sentencing Bill

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Anders Hagstrom Justice Reporter
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New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker claimed the future of federal criminal justice reform looks “horrible” under President Donald Trump Wednesday, despite repeated overtures from the White House on prison reform.

Trump claimed that enacting re-entry and rehabilitation reforms to cut America’s recidivism rate is one of his administration’s top priorities. There are currently several bills in Congress aimed at sentencing and prison reform with Republican and Democrat sponsors alike. Booker, however, is skeptical of the future of those bills.

“The landscape looks horrible to me, and we don’t see an appetite for making these kind of changes,” the Democrat said at The Atlantic’s “Defining Justice” conference Wednesday. “We have critical folks who blocked the legislation under President Obama that we got out of committee. And I heard those same things in the committee vote that we just had on the pieces of legislation that we’re moving forward.”

Booker’s comments likely reference Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which made it out of the Judiciary committee with a 16-5 vote Feb. 15. Grassley’s fellow Republicans accounted for all five of the votes against the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), while it enjoyed universal support from the committee’s 10 Democrats. If passed into law, the bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug and violent offenses as well as introduce prison reforms aimed at cutting recidivism rates.

Booker, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, voted in favor of the bill’s passage, but his comments Wednesday imply he doesn’t expect the bill to make to the president’s desk. He may not be wrong. Grassley introduced the same bill during the 114th Congress only for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to bring it to a vote. Trump’s White House has also signaled opposition to Grassley’s bill because it goes beyond prison reform to address sentencing reform.


Senior Adviser Jared Kushner has long butted heads at the White House over justice reform with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a long-time advocate of “tough on crime” policy. They appeared to have reached an agreement in January in which the White House would back prison reform, but not sentencing reform. When asked whether he believed Kushner’s support for justice reform was authentic, Booker said he believed it was.

“Jared Kushner has reached out, and I have a history with the Kushners and the Trumps — if you’re from Jersey, you’ve probably bumped into them. But I’ll tell you this, Jared Kushner’s father went to prison. I was a guy who was communicating with him while he was in prison, and when he came out of prison he was just animated because now he saw from the inside how broken the system is,” he said. “So this is a family issue, and I know there is a sincere intention that they’re going to make change.”

Booker’s framing the justice reform landscape as “horrible” contrasts with most of his fellow justice reform advocates on both sides of the aisle. 2017 saw massive sentencing and prison reforms in Connecticut, Kentucky, and Louisiana, as well as bail reforms in Illinois and New Jersey. Booker’s Republican allies have also rebuked Sessions for his attempts to interfere in the Senate.

Sessions sent a letter to Grassley’s Judiciary Committee urging the body to strike it down. Grassley was not amused.

“[Sessions] is now the Attorney General and is charged with executing the laws that Congress passes, not interfering with the legislative process,” Grassley said. “Certainly we value input from the Department of Justice, but if General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama.”

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