Monday, April 10, 2017
WaPo | Cook and Sessions have also fought the winds of change on Capitol Hill, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers recently tried but failed to pass the first significant bill on criminal justice reform in decades.
The legislation, which had 37 sponsors in the Senate, including Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and 79 members of the House, would have reduced some of the long mandatory minimum sentences for gun and drug crimes. It also would have given judges more flexibility in drug sentencing and made retroactive the law that reduced the large disparity between sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
The bill, introduced in 2015, had support from outside groups as diverse as the Koch brothers and the NAACP. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) supported it as well. The path to passage seemed clear.
But then people such as Sessions and Cook spoke up. The longtime Republican senator from Alabama became a leading opponent, citing the spike in crime in several cities.
“Violent crime and murders have increased across the country at almost alarming rates in some areas. Drug use and overdoses are occurring and dramatically increasing,” said Sessions, one of only five members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted against the legislation. “It is against this backdrop that we are considering a bill . . . to cut prison sentences for drug traffickers and even other violent criminals, including those currently in federal prison.”
Cook testified that it was the “wrong time to weaken the last tools available to federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents.”
After Republican lawmakers became nervous about passing legislation that might seem soft on crime, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to even bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
“Sessions was the main reason that bill didn’t pass,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, the director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “He came in at the last minute and really torpedoed the bipartisan effort.”
Now that he is attorney general, Sessions has signaled a new direction. As his first step, Sessions told his prosecutors in a memo last month to begin using “every tool we have” — language that evoked the strategy from the drug war of loading up charges to lengthen sentences.
And he quickly appointed Cook to be a senior official on the attorney general’s task force on crime reduction and public safety, which was created following a Trump executive order to address what the president has called “American carnage.”
“If there was a flickering candle of hope that remained for sentencing reform, Cook’s appointment was a fire hose,” said Ring, president of FAMM. “There simply aren’t enough backhoes to build all the prisons it would take to realize Steve Cook’s vision for America.”