Congress was all for sentencing reform — until Obama got involved

As we discussed earlier this week, the politics of marijuana make for some strange political bedfellows. But an issue that dovetails with that – sentencing reform – has been building a robust bipartisan coalition in Congress for far longer, and that partnership was actually making some progress.

The president also backs the push to rectify what many see as a broken federal sentencing system that unfairly punishes low-level, non-violent offenders. This week, the the White House announced it is seeking to increase the number of applications for clemency it receives.

Both Democrats and Republicans should be happy about this, right? Not really, it turns out.

The reason is predictable: As so often always happens in Washington, politics and power have entered the equation.

There are currently two bills in Congress -- one in the House, another in the Senate --  that that would refocus federal resources on incarcerating violent offenders and move away from low-level ones. The Senate bill passed through committee and is awaiting a vote from the full body. The House bill is currently in committee.

Legislators, it turns out, aren’t happy that Obama has, in their minds, gone over Congress’s head to push forward his plan.

"I really don’t like politics infecting the justice system. I don’t like it no matter who does it," said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who thinks the announcement is timed to help give Democrats a boost ahead of the midterm elections.

"This is a Republican prosecutor from the South saying they don’t make sense," he said of current sentencing rules and keeping low-level, nonviolent drug offenders in prison for years. "But there’s a way to do it that does not do violence to the rule of law and there’s a way to do it that doesn’t maximize the politics."


Deputy Attorney General James Cole speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. Cole announced the new standards that will be considered in deciding whether to recommend clemency for certain non-violent drug prisoners. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The issue is one of those rare things that has united Democrats and Republicans of all stripes. For example, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) got into a Festivus-themed Twitter exchange in which they said they agree on sentencing reform.

Members of both parties have rallied around the issue as one that is needed for fiscal reasons -- easing the burden on overcrowded prisons -- and fairness reasons, addressing the discrepancy in punishment for people convicted of lesser crimes who, because of federal sentencing rules, are spending decades in prison.

While Congress has been pushing forward its legislation, the Obama administration has been taking its own steps to try to rectify the sentencing system. In 2010 Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine.  However, thousands of people sentenced before the change are still serving federally mandated sentences for trafficking or the intent to traffic cocaine. In December, Obama granted clemency to 21 people, cutting short the sentences of eight people and pardoning 13.

Despite this, Obama has granted the fewest number of pardons and commutations of any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A senior White House official said Obama was behind the new rules and ordered the Justice Department to look for prisoners who could be eligible for clemency. Obama thought he wasn't seeing as many meritorious applications as were out there, and he wanted to make sure everyone who was eligible for clemency had a fair shot at receiving it. The administration is focusing on offenders who have served at least 10 years of a drug sentence, don't have a long criminal history and have no ties to gangs.

Members of Congress - and there are 50 who have sponsored or co-sponsored the pending bills - think that their ideas are the way to go.

For one, they said, actually passing legislation would change the current laws, which everyone agrees are broken. And, as is always the case, Congress doesn't look too fondly on an administration when it circumvents the legislative branch.

"Its’ a very encouraging concept, especially since it looks like there’s some bipartisan agreement in making sure some nonviolent drug offenders aren’t incarcerated for way too long for what they’ve done,"  Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who co-sponsored the House bill, said in an interview. "I wish the attorney general would go through the legislative process, and the president would go through the legislative process, rather than just going through the executive branch so we can codify these common-sense provisions for all future nonviolent offenders too."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand  (D-NY) said in a statement that while the administration's step forward is good, the White House also needs to work with Congress to make permanent changes to the law.

But Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a co-sponsor of the House bill, think's the announcement is another example of an administration that overreaches.

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
SECTION: {section=politics, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=politics, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Sean Sullivan | April 24