The National Sheriffs Association said Monday it is unsatisfied with the latest draft of an overhaul of the criminal justice system, denying support for President Trump’s late-year legislative priority from one group that may be key to persuading more Senate Republicans to vote for the bill.
Senators, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), have worked on revisions aimed at winning over skittish GOP senators who would like to support the Trump-backed legislation but have been concerned that the bill would undercut the party’s tough-on-crime reputation.
Many law enforcement groups support the criminal justice bill and say the new revisions make it stronger from a public safety perspective. But several GOP senators have said including changes that would satisfy the influential sheriffs group would help get their support.
“We understand Sen. Grassley and Sen. Durbin are attempting to make the public safety changes that National Sheriffs’ Association recommended,” Jonathan Thompson, the association’s executive director, said Monday . But “we have not seen language that addresses all the concerns of America's sheriffs.”
The legislation, known formally as the First Step Act, has driven a rift through law enforcement groups, much like it has divided Senate Republicans. On the supportive side include organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police as well as the National District Attorneys Association. Yet other groups such as the sheriffs organization and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association have been opposed.
One person familiar with the deliberations said the sheriffs group reviewed a copy of the latest version and found that it barely addressed its concerns, although the changes include revisions that would explicitly bar more types of sex offenders from qualifying for time credits.
Congressional aides and others familiar with the discussions said the newest draft of the bill will be released soon, and the legislation’s chief backers were still working to lock down more Republican votes. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said Monday that he would support the bill — aimed at loosening some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes while implementing initiatives aimed at reducing the risk of recidivism — after opposing previous iterations of the criminal justice bill.
“After working closely with the Trump administration, we were able to address several concerns that I have had with certain provisions,” Perdue said in a statement Monday. “For years, Georgia has been leading the nation in reducing recidivism, providing drug rehabilitation, and increasing job training opportunities in our state prison system. These efforts are clearly paying dividends in our state, and we now have an opportunity to make similar changes at the federal level.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), another key conservative holdout, also announced Friday that with those changes, he would support the legislation.
Yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has given signals in private that he does not plan to put the bill up for a vote this year, which supporters say will easily clear the threshold needed to pass legislation in the Senate. That’s despite a public pledge in October that if more than 60 senators wanted to move forward with the legislation, McConnell will “find time to address it.”
Grassley, who tried unsuccessfully under the Obama administration to pass a more expansive criminal justice bill, on Monday appeared increasingly impatient over McConnell’s indecision over giving the measure a vote.
“You tell me what it’ll take to get Senator McConnell on board . . . I don’t know what more we could do,” Grassley told reporters Monday. “Let’s put it this way. I’m frustrated. And I only use two words: I’m frustrated. I didn’t say any more.”
The Iowa Republican had projected previously that about 30 Senate Republicans support his legislation, although McConnell and his top deputy, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), have given a more pessimistic whip count. More than half of the 51-member conference are either opposed to the bill or undecided, according to McConnell and Cornyn.
Nonetheless, Trump has urged McConnell via Twitter to put the bill up for a vote. And senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, did his first television interview Monday evening with Fox News’s Sean Hannity — a Trump favorite — to promote the criminal justice bill. The cable news channel’s parent company formally endorsed the bill last week.
“Look, we have a great criminal justice system in this country; it’s the best in the world, but it’s still far from perfect,” Kushner said in the interview. “And this bill will do a lot to correct some racial disparities that we have in our system.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.