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Utah’s Republican Sen. Mike Lee: Criminal justice reform legislation has momentum

WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 10: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) speaks during the Washington Post Live “Out of Jail, Into Society” event on Feb. 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. <br/> (Photo by Kate Patterson for The Washington Post)

The co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation to reduce some mandatory minimum drug and gun sentences said Wednesday that he is hopeful Congress can still pass the bill despite recent setbacks.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said that although issues have arisen that have slowed the legislation— considered by sentencing reform advocates to be the most significant in decades—he is hopeful that Congress will pass a bill.

“I don’t believe it’s stalled,” Lee said at “Out of Jail, Into Society,” a Washington Post Live event about prison reform. “It’s getting momentum…True it can’t pass without Republicans. Are there detractors? Sure. But those who are with us outnumber those who are against us.”

In October, a group of Senate Democrats and Republicans, including Lee, introduced the criminal justice reform legislation, which Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called a “historic bill” that was the “product of thoughtful bipartisan deliberation.”

But the legislation has hit several snags. A number of senators in recent days have raised concerns that the bill, if passed, could free violent criminals. One major political obstacle now is the existence of House legislation that would require prosecutors prove a defendant’s criminal intent in order to win convictions for certain federal crimes. President Obama and several congressional Democrats say this rule is an attempt to make it more difficult for the federal government to prosecute corporations–and they’ve warned that passing it could derail other criminal justice legislation.

To illustrate the need for changes in drug sentencing, Lee highlighted the case of his constituent, Weldon Angelos, the 36-year-old father of three from Utah, who was sentenced to 55 years in a federal prison after being arrested for selling marijuana three times to a police informant. When Lee was a federal prosecutor in Salt Lake City in 2004, one of Lee’s colleagues prosecuted Angelos. But Lee has now called on President Obama to grant him clemency. On Tuesday, the former federal judge who sentenced him, Paul G. Cassell, also called on President Obama to grant him clemency.

Sen. Lee discusses the case of Weldon Angelos and why he took on sentencing reform

Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser to President Obama, said that the initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent drug offenders is “a top priority for the president” and that Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and “the entire team” at the Justice Department are committed to sorting through clemency petitions from thousands of inmates and figuring out which ones meet the criteria set out by Justice officials.

“We don’t have the resources to review every single one that we have in,” said Jarrett, who was on the Post panel with Lee. “But it’s something that is important. The president has taken great pains in giving positive enforcement to those whom he has granted clemency, writing them letters and the letters back that he has received have been very, very touching.”

Texas inmate granted clemency by Obama writes him a letter of gratitude

“But the real key here is, let’s not put all our eggs in granting clemency,” Jarrett said. “Let’s make sure these people are not incarcerated in the first place. Let’s make sure we are really being sensible. And when we have judges around the country saying that their hands are tied and that they are anguishing over the fact that they can’t treat the facts of each circumstance as they deem appropriate tells us that we have to do something.”

“Let’s keep people out of the system in the first place,” Jarrett said.

Valerie Jarrett: The desk is stacked against people seeking successful reentry after prison

Other panelists on Wednesday included Bernard B. Kerik, former New York City Police and Correction Commissioner who founded the American Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform; Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel; Glenn E. Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA and Teresa Hodge, co-founder of Mission: Launch, Inc.