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Did Obama Approve GOP Efforts To Water-Down Criminal Justice Reform?

Republicans are likely to further weaken sentencing reform legislation, and it appears President Barack Obama’s administration may have approved efforts to water down reform.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was introduced with lofty statements against mass incarceration and pledges of bipartisan cooperation. While falling well-short of abolishing mandatory minimums, the bill did make some effort to reduce certain lengthy sentences. Importantly, mandatory minimum sentence reductions were not only proposed for nonviolent drug offenders, but for some violent criminal convictions as well, including for so-called “armed career criminals.”

But sentence reductions for some violent offenders may be removed from the bill as part of an effort to keep bipartisan criminal justice reform alive amid strong conservative criticism, according to POLITICO. ​

The news comes after the White House confirmed to Huffington Post that President Barack Obama “recently” held a secret meeting with GOP leaders about the bill on February 4.

President Obama has a history of placing greater emphasis on bipartisanship than the strength of legislation. He relied upon this sort of political deal making to pass several bills important to his legacy, including the 2009 stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act, which bargained away key provisions to secure Republican support

Key provisions of the legislation have been a major point of contention among conservatives, especially GOP presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz.

Before the Senate committee approved the bill last year, Cruz told senators, “At a time when police officers across this country are under assault right now, being vilified right now, when we’re seeing violent crime spiking in our cities across the country, I think it would be a serious mistake for the Senate to pass legislation providing for 7,082 criminals to be released early.”

Cruz, who once championed the bipartisan plan to “do something” about the criminal justice system, claimed the bill “could result in more violent criminals being let out on the streets, and potentially more lives being lost,” and warned his colleagues they could fall victim to Willie Horton-style attack ads.

The senator’s baseless fear-mongering aside, Cruz specifically stated his two biggest issues were the reduced mandatory minimum sentences for “armed career criminals,” and the retroactive application of that sentence reduction as well.

Now, four days after the Huffington Post reported the secret White House meeting with GOP leaders, Politico reports Republicans are expected to introduce changes to the SRCA “aimed at mollifying conservative critics.” And lo and behold, those changes happen to be exactly what Cruz demanded.

If reports are true, GOP leaders may have reason to believe, perhaps after a recent secret meeting not listed on the president’s public schedule, that the White House would go along with Cruz’s changes in hopes of passing one of Obama’s final legacy reforms. It’s also possible Republicans are sabotaging the effort by moving forward, despite knowing full-well the president would oppose them.

In addition to his penchant for compromise above all else, Obama’s support for criminal justice reform has focused almost exclusively on supporting reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders, and POLITICO reports “all initial GOP and Democratic backers of the criminal justice reform measure” are said to support these changes, which lends credence to the idea that Obama supports GOP changes.

In other news, The Hill reports one of Obama’s senior advisors, Valerie Jarrett, met with Mark Holden, a legal adviser to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who have been aggressively pushing for “mens rea” reforms that would make it harder to prosecute white collar corporate crimes.

GOP leaders disagree on this reform, with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte in support and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley sternly opposed. The White House is reportedly opposed to the measure as well, although it makes little difference considering how little the administration has used its existing powers to prosecute corporate crime.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.