The bipartisan team that rallied House support for last year’s federal sentencing changes is drafting new legislation to clean up the existing criminal records of nonviolent drug offenders, a centerpiece of their efforts to pass further reforms.
Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) are discussing how to potentially expunge the records of people who were convicted of drug crimes before minimum sentencing requirements were reduced and to restore their eligibility to apply for certain jobs, both lawmakers said Thursday. Even in cases where people have served their time, criminal records can often keep them from rejoining the workforce, and the change could let people “really reset and restart their lives,” Jeffries said.
“What is being contemplated is removing the stain that has been put on their life’s journey as a result of a nonviolent drug offense, often occurring at a very adolescent stage of their life,” he added.
The bipartisan backing could form the basis for what Collins guessed might be called a Next Step Act, to follow up on the pair’s successful efforts to pass the First Step Act last year. It is not yet clear whether the pair is working on a series of bills or another comprehensive package.
“My view is . . . let’s look at what can we do in terms of going big,” Collins said. “It may be complicated heading into a presidential [election] year, but we at least have an opportunity to consider it.”
Both lawmakers said they hope to continue their partnership with the White House, in particular with President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, with whom they worked on last year’s criminal-justice changes.
Jeffries said he also hopes to address marijuana as part of any future package.
“There’s a growing number of conservatives, libertarians and Republicans who are in agreement with Democrats, who believe that we should at least take a hard look at descheduling marijuana,” Jeffries said. “Descheduling marijuana at the federal level shouldn’t actually be that controversial, and it’s consistent with Republican principles of states’ rights and federalism.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a classification that makes it potentially subject to the strictest regulations and punishments for illegal distribution and use. That stands in sharp contrast to the trend taking hold in several states, most of which have approved it at least for medical purposes. Some have decriminalized marijuana use entirely.
Attorney general nominee William P. Barr, who said during his confirmation hearing Tuesday that he is in favor of a federal ban on marijuana, acknowledged he would not “upset settled expectations” of people and businesses operating in states where distribution and production of marijuana are permitted.
But that doesn’t mean descheduling it will be an easy sell. An aide to Collins said Thursday that the congressman is unlikely to support such a move.
Whatever effort can clear the House must also gain support in the Senate, where the Senate Judiciary Committee’s former and current chairmen, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), respectively, have said they are in favor of continuing to reform the criminal justice system, even where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has resisted them.
It is not clear, however, that Republican Senate leaders would support descheduling marijuana either. Spokesmen for Grassley and Graham did not respond to questions about whether they supported the proposals being discussed in the House.