92°F
weather icon Possible Drizzle

It may take Kim Kardashian to spur federal sentencing reform — ANALYSIS

WASHINGTON — Reality TV star Kim Kardashian visited the White House on Wednesday to urge President Donald Trump to commute the sentence of a 63-year-old grandmother serving life without parole for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense.

Instead, Trump announced Thursday that he would pardon Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative author who pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws in 2012. D’Souza paid a fine and served eight months in a community center. A full presidential pardon would wipe clean his criminal record.

It would be nice to see Trump show as much sympathy for a convict who screwed up her life as he did for a conservative who screwed up his campaign donations.

In 1996, Alice Marie Johnson was convicted on eight criminal counts, including conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine and money laundering. She has already served 21 years in prison.

In pleading Johnson’s case, Kardashian shrewdly seized upon draconian federal sentencing practices that can put low- or midlevel nonviolent offenders away for decades, even life — thanks to a system so rife with abuse that some Senate Democrats and Republicans are determined to change the law.

These officials don’t argue that offenders such as Johnson should not go to prison; instead they maintain that the federal sentences should more closely reflect the crime.

Violent drug kingpins, not their underlings, should be sentenced to life, they argue. Hence, the ACLU and the conservative Charles Koch Foundation both have advocated for Johnson’s early release.

They have not found a ready ally in Trump, who at the 2016 Republican National Convention criticized President Barack Obama for ending “decades of progress made in bringing down crime” with a directive to federal prosecutors not to go for the maximum sentence available under the federal mandatory minimum system.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been perhaps the most stalwart opponent of reform efforts in Congress.

Trump World, however, rarely presents itself without a counterforce. On this issue, son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has been a persuasive and effective advocate for criminal justice reform.

This is an issue that is personal for Kushner, as his father was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions.

Another driver just might be special counsel Robert Mueller, said Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

Mueller’s Russia probe shows a federal system in which lawmen “decide who they’re going to prosecute and then hunt for a crime,” said Nolan, who was the Republican leader of the California Assembly before he served 29 months behind bars on a federal racketeering charge. “This has really opened his eyes.”

Kushner and Nolan would love to see Washington enact federal sentencing reform, but with the administration opposed, they’ve focused on legislation that can be enacted. Kushner has corralled his painful family experience behind a prison reform bill that passed the House by a 360-59 vote. Support was unusually bipartisan with 226 Republicans and 134 Democrats voting yes.

The First Step Act, sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., would increase the good time credit, ensure inmates are placed within 500 driving miles of their families and provide incentives for inmates to complete rehabilitation programs.

Trump has pledged to sign the bill.

So what could go wrong?

The U.S. Senate.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has come out against the measure’s risk assessment mechanism, which, among other problems, would “give far too much discretion” to the administration’s Bureau of Prisons.

Jeffries rejects that claim. “Ultimately, it should be our mission to improve the lives of the people we are here to represent,” he wrote in reply. Jeffries called on Durbin and company to “reconsider their position, cast aside partisan ambition and join the House’s fight to fix our broken criminal justice system.”

But Democrats aren’t the only ones who oppose First Step. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has blocked the House bill because it excludes sentencing reform.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, co-sponsor of the Senate version of First Step, has warned that mandatory minimum sentencing reductions could doom prison reform. And, like Kushner and Nolan, Cornyn supports sentencing reform.

It would be great if Kardashian’s appeal for Johnson’s release changed the president’s heart by putting a face on a system that throws small-fish, nonviolent offenders in prison until they die.

But if it doesn’t, the Senate should go for a win that eases the way for federal inmates upon their release. First Step should save taxpayers money, but, more importantly, it should increase offenders’ chances for a life in step with the law.

And, really, how can sentencing reform advocates demand a bill that fixes runaway federal sentences when they failed to send a bill to President Barack Obama, who favored the idea, in 2016?

Contact Debra J. Saunders, the Review-Journal’s White House correspondent and a nationally syndicated columnist, at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
Former Nevada Senate leader Kelvin Atkinson sentenced to prison
Former Nevada Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson, who pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds, was sentenced to 27 months in prison on Thursday, July 18, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trumps Strength is also a Weakness - Video
One of Donald Trump’s greatest strengths — his ability to shape national narratives — is also a great weakness.
Tax the Rich Bus Tour makes a stop in Las Vegas - Video
The Tax the Rich Bus has stopped in Las Vegas as part of its summer tour. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno hosts BBQ - Video
Assembly Woman Daniele Monroe-Moreno hosts BBQ to bring the community together to hear about the candidates up for election and for people to gather and have fun.
Democrat Virtual Caucus - Video
Elizabeth Warren visits Las Vegas
Senator Elizabeth Warren made a campaign stop at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Tuesday July 2, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Aaron Ford Speaks About Bill AB431
AB431 is a bill sponsored by Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson to restore the right to vote for formerly incarcerated individuals. Attorney General Aaron Ford spoke at the AM&E Church in North Las Vegas about the bill, on Monday, July 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Right Take: Biden's Racially Questionable Comments
Joe Biden has uttered racially charged statements for years. Now that he’s the frontrunner for the Democrat presidential nomination, he may finally face prolonged scrutiny for them.
Christopher Rufo Discusses Homelessness In The USA - VIDEO
Christopher Rufo discusses homelessness in the United States and how politicians can work to improve conditions for those with drug addictions.
Clark County 2019 Election Results - Video
The 2019 Elections wrap up in Clark County including an upset in the Boulder City Mayor race.
Olivia Diaz talks about her win in Ward 3 - VIDEO
Las Vegas City Councilwoman-elect Olivia Diaz talks about her election win in Ward 3 and what lies ahead for her.
Greene discusses Read by 3 and Opportunity Scholarships - VIDEO
The Nevada Legislative Session is over and the results are mixed for Nevada students, according to Tom Greene, Senior regional legislative director, Excel in Ed in Action.
Bernie Sanders visits Las Vegas
Sen. Bernie Sanders made a stop at Roy W. Martin middle school on Thursday, during his campaign trail.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Las Vegas
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris castigated President Donald Trump’s merit-based immigration plan, saying it was “short-sighted” and overlooked the cultural significance of family, during a campaign stop in Las Vegas. “We cannot allow people to start parsing and pointing fingers and creating hierarchies among immigrants,” Harris told Asian Pacific Islander leaders at a Chinatown restaurant, one of two appearances she made Thursday.
The Right Take New Education Funding Plan - VIDEO
On Monday, Senate Education Committee chair Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, released a new education funding formula. For years, many Democrat politicians have criticized the current education funding formula, called the Nevada Plan. They claim it’s old and outdated. Their biggest beef is that it doesn’t allocate more money for students who are English Language Learners or live in poverty. The theory is that it’s harder to educate those students and so they need additional services, which costs additional money.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Nevada
California Senator Kamala Harris meets with One APIA Nevada, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies empowering Asian Pacific Islander Nevadans. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ben Carson talks housing (Audio only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Ben Carson visits the RJ (Full Audio Only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Nevada
After campaigning at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 16 in Henderson, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke with the Review-Journal.
Student serenades Mayor Carolyn Goodman at swearing in
Students from the school she founded, The Meadows School, serenaded Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman during a swearing in ceremony for her third and final term. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Al Gore Speaks At UNLV About Climate Change - Video
Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore talks to an audience at UNLV about the effects of Climate change and how to switch to renewable sources of energy.
Forum on Wages and Working People Highlights - VIDEO
Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, and John Hickenlooper speak in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nevada Politics Today Valerie Weber - VIDEO
Valerie Weber sits down with Victor Joecks to discuss her policies and why she is running for Ward 2 of the Las Vegas City Council.
THE LATEST