Top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday slammed President Barack Obama for again trying to circumvent Congress with a plan to consider clemency for more convicted nonviolent drug offenders.
Sen. Jeff Sessions called it "an alarming abuse of the pardon power."
"The president is now implementing through executive action what Congress expressly chose not to pass into law," the Alabama senator charged. "These are uncharted waters.
"If this latest unilateral action becomes the norm, then what kind of Pandora's box has the president opened?" he asked. "Can a president pardon all people convicted of financial fraud, or identity theft, or unlawful re-entry into the country, or any category of crime when Congress does not act as the executive wishes?"
Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Senate's longest-serving Republican, said that "the president has authority to grant clemency to certain individuals who are no longer dangerous to the community."
"But I hope President Obama is not seeking to change sentencing policy unilaterally," he added. "Congress, not the president, has authority to make sentencing policy.
"He should continue to work with Congress rather than once again going it alone, and I'm willing to work with the president on these issues."
Attorney General Eric Holder
said Monday that the president wanted to "restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences."
The effort, Holder said in a video news release, would focus on those who were sentenced under the minimum guidelines to more time behind bars than they would face if they committed the same type of crime now.
He added that federal prisoners "sentenced under the old regime" have ended up serving longer sentences.
The minimum sentencing guidelines were overwhelmingly passed by Congress in 1984 and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. They sought to increase consistency in sentencing for federal crimes but have long been attacked as giving prosecutors too much power in the criminal justice system, and judges too little discretion to shape sentences to fit individual defendants.
"We're dealing with a particular problem, and that is that I think the pendulum swung a little too far in the '80s," Holder said.
The attorney general said in August said that the Justice Department would shift federal sentencing policies, focusing on the long mandatory terms under the 1984 legislation that he said have "flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent."
Under the new White House effort, Justice will establish new criteria to allow a wider variety of applications to be considered, and Holder said the Office of the Pardon Attorney would likely hire several new lawyers to handle the applications.
Obama has granted only 10 commutations in more than five years as president, Politico
reports, and he has granted 52 pardons — all to convicts who had finished serving their time.
A pardon forgives a crime and wipes away the conviction, while a commutation leaves the conviction but ends the punishment.
But in their attacks on Obama's new move, the GOP Judiciary Committee members pointed to the Fair Sentencing Act, which Obama signed in 2010, as an effort toward reforming guidelines.
That legislation sought to reduce the disparities in the way the law treats cocaine possession.
Critics had charged that the 1984 guidelines dealt unusually harsh sentences to those convicted of possessing crack cocaine versus those with powdered cocaine.
The bill addressed the issue of retroactively reducing certain sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, Sessions said, but it was stripped from the final law.
Now, Obama's even trying to circumvent that law with his new plans, the Republicans charged.
"While the pardon power has been interpreted broadly, the Framers never intended for it to be used in this manner," Sessions said. "Rather, they intended for it to be used on a limited, case-by-case basis to correct injustice, not to be a tool for the administration to rewrite or even eliminate laws passed by Congress.
"We expect a president to exercise his powers with good judgment in accordance with our constitutional traditions and provisions, including the fact that Congress is vested with the power to establish sentencing law," he said.
The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, cautioned: "The new guidelines are one thing on paper, but we'll need to see how they actually play out in practice.
"The bigger point we need to discuss is how Congress can best lower some sentences or time served and raise other sentences for crimes such as child pornography, terrorism, sexual assault, domestic violence, and various fraud offenses," he said.
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas called for "meaningful reform of our nation's prison system," which "requires a well-thought-out proposal for using rehabilitation, jobs, and training to help prisoners re-enter society — not an election-year push with no plan to reduce their risk of becoming repeat offenders."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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