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Trump's sentencing panel picks may face uphill U.S. Senate path

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two of the four people that President Donald Trump has nominated to serve on a U.S. prison sentencing panel are being blasted by critics, who say the nominees would seek tougher standards, as favored by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Criticism of the two nominees by criminal justice groups, including conservative-leaning ones, could make it harder for the full slate of four to win swift U.S. Senate confirmation.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is a seven-member independent body that crafts guidelines for prison sentencing.

The nominations come at a time when Sessions has been advocating for a return to harsher prison sentences reminiscent of the 1980s-era war on drugs.

Last year, Sessions drew rebuke from Democrats and some fellow Republicans for reversing Obama-era guidance that sought to give prosecutors more leeway in charging decisions, so non-violent offenders might avoid facing strict mandatory minimums that have contributed to dramatic growth in the U.S. prison population.

Trump said on Thursday he will nominate four people to the panel: its current acting Republican Chairman Judge William Pryor; Virginia Republican Judge Henry Hudson; Georgetown Law School professor Republican William Graham Otis; and Pennsylvania Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, a Democrat.

Before Trump’s announcement, conservatives and other criminal justice reform activists who support reducing sentences for low-level offenders were quietly urging the White House not to nominate Hudson, known by the nickname “Hang Em High Henry.”

Hudson’s views on sentencing are considered to be in line with Sessions, who supports tougher sentencing.

Critics point to a case Hudson brought during his time as a state prosecutor against a mentally disabled man accused of rape and murder who agreed to a plea deal, but was later exonerated after serving five years in prison based on DNA evidence.

“This guy should not be anywhere near the Sentencing Commission,” said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative and libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks.

Activists said they were also concerned about Otis, a former federal prosecutor. “Mr. Otis’s outdated views are well-known and well-documented. This is not a person who will be guided by evidence and data,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an activist group.

Otis, through a Georgetown Law spokeswoman, declined to comment. Hudson did not return a call seeking comment.

Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who now teaches law at the University of Utah, knows both Hudson and Otis personally. “Both of them would be excellent choices,” he said.

“A lot of the work the Sentencing Commission does is highly technical ... it’s not really the kind of job frankly where I think ideology is a big factor,” Cassell said.

Drew Hudson, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, in a statement also praised all four of Trump’s nominees.

In the Senate, the nominees will be considered at the same time that some Senate Republicans and Democrats are pushing for passage of a bill, opposed by Sessions, to reduce sentences for low level offenders and give judges more sentencing discretion.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Tom Brown