The Rayburn House office building on Capitol Hill was unusually warm and fuzzy on Wednesday. Representatives from the Heritage Foundation and the ACLU happily co-mingled in a panel on reforming the often-onerous mandatory minimum prison sentences that nonviolent drug offenders face. The panel was dubbed “Reaching the Tipping Point: The Future of Bipartisan Sentencing and Prison Reform,” and it was standing room only.
There are two important things you need to know about mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform: First, it has bipartisan and pan-ideological backing. Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who gives Ted Cruz a run for his money in the contest for most conservative senator, and Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democrat’s Majority (soon-to-be Minority) Whip joined forces to introduce a bill that would make modest changes to current federal mandatory minimums. That bill got more than 30 co-sponsors, including Rand Paul, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Ted Cruz. When Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz both think the same bill is a good idea, you might think it would have legs.
That brings us to the second important thing: Even though mandatory minimum sentencing reform has backing from some of the most powerful voices on both sides of the aisle, and even though it gave Congress a chance to have a rare camera-friendly kumbaya moment, and even though most of the Republican party’s 2016 presidential contenders publicly back this kind of reform, it hasn’t gone anywhere.
And its prospects in a Republican-helmed Senate might be even gloomier. That’s because the fate of this legislation would probably be in the hands of Chuck Grassley, who is on deck to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee. If he doesn’t want mandatory minimum sentencing reform to happen, it probably won’t. And Grassley hasn’t been shy about his stance on the issue. Unlike his younger conservative colleagues, Grassley is a big booster of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. (You can read a floor speech he gave praising them here.)
When asked about the possibility of the Judiciary Committee considering legislation like Lee and Durbin’s on Grassley’s watch, the Iowa senator was extremely bearish.
“I’ve raised concerns about people pushing importing heroin into the country, of having their sentence reduced, I think you gotta’ be very careful what sort of a signal you’re sending,” Grassley said before bustling off.
So here’s the central question for opponents of stringent mandatory minimums: Can all the bipartisanship in the world move Chuck Grassley?