Senators seek Trump backing for prison sentencing reform bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan pair of U.S. Senators on Tuesday called on President Donald Trump to back a bill that would reduce prison sentences for non-violent offenders, despite staunch opposition by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

In a briefing with reporters, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said they believed they could muster enough support in the Senate to pass the bill, in rare bipartisan fashion.

“This is an opportunity for the president to have a win,” Grassley told reporters. “It would help a lot if the president would engage on this very important issue.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year unveiled a legislative package that includes sentencing reform for lower-level offenders and prison reforms, such as creating recidivism reduction programs to help prisoners re-enter society.

The bill was approved by the committee in February with bipartisan support despite objections from Sessions, who alleged it would reduce sentences for “a highly dangerous cohort of criminals.” He has promoted policies that will lead to longer prison sentences.

But the bill has not yet been brought to the floor for a vote. Some lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are advocating for legislation that would only tackle prison reforms without addressing more comprehensive and controversial changes to sentencing laws.

The House bill, known as the First Step Act, passed with overwhelming support in May and is backed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

It would focus on recidivism reduction programs and require the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to do risk assessments on which inmates can qualify and earn credits toward completing their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.

Its Republican and Democratic sponsors have said they left sentencing reform out of the measure because it could become too big of a stumbling block in getting the bill signed into law.

On Tuesday, Kushner was set to meet with the key House and Senate lawmakers who are backing the prison reform effort, according to a Capitol Hill staffer. Meanwhile, the conservative-leaning Right on Crime group sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week calling on him to bring the House bill up for a vote.

Grassley and Durbin, however, insisted Tuesday they do not support passing prison reform unless sentencing is part of the package.

Trump has expressed some interest in reducing sentences through his pardon authority.

Earlier this month, he commuted the life sentence of a woman for a first-time drug offense whose cause was taken up by celebrity Kim Kardashian West.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Tom Brown