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Obama Administration Rejects Drug Court Plan In Criminal Justice Bill

The bipartisan SAFE Act is the bill criminal justice advocates want. The Obama administration doesn't like it.

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Lauren Victoria Burke / AP

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont talks with Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia. The legislators are two of the top Democrats pushing for an overhaul of the federal criminal justice system.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration objects to key provisions in a bipartisan criminal justice bill in the House that has picked up support from both the tough-on-crime end of the Republican Party and advocates of overhauling federal prison sentencing guidelines, BuzzFeed News has learned.

The bill's sponsors say the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015 — or SAFE Act — takes the best ideas from state criminal justice efforts in recent years and applies them to the federal system, but Obama administration officials have told supporters of the bill they don't like several of its provisions, including a key one that would essentially create a federal version of the drug court programs an increasing number of states use to divert low-level, first-time drug offenders away from prison and into probation.

It's early in the legislative process for the SAFE Act, and with the big focus on bipartisan momentum around criminal justice at the moment, no one is willing to go on the record with the rift over the bill. But several people familiar with both administration thinking and the plans of the bill's supporters told BuzzFeed News that members of Obama's team have told the SAFE Act's backers they aren't happy with the bill.

BuzzFeed News learned that several weeks ago, during a closed-door meeting where members of the Obama administration were present, the White House was not enthusiastic about the most recent draft of the SAFE Act and expressed concerns around several of the bill's provisions pertaining to sentencing for both first-time and repeat low-level drug offenders.

The changes would push many of those cases toward probation. In the past, prosecutors have been skeptical of this kind of change, saying it makes it harder for them to leverage fear of prison among low-level offenders to net bigger fish. Since that meeting, according to multiple sources, the administration has expressed its concerns about the bill in other closed-door venues.

The White House, activists and congressional sources all declined to comment on the record about internal conversations about the SAFE Act.

The bill is cosponsored by Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. The bill was drafted after months of hearings by a House Judiciary Committee "over-criminalization task force" led by Sensenbrenner and featuring Scott as one of its most prominent members.

Supporters say the bill was crafted to take ideas seen to be already working at the state level and apply them to the federal government's war on drugs. Among them is the drug court plan, which incentivizes judges to hand down sentences other than prison for so-called low-level drug offenders. Under current rules, these kind of criminals — nonviolent, first or second-time offenders — are pushed into prison under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

Scott told BuzzFeed News the drug court program is a proven solution for reducing crime and preventing recidivism as well as saving money.

"I'd like to hear from them saying what's wrong with drug courts," Scott said. "Because all the studies show they reduce crime and save money. If that's not your goal, then we can talk."

"Have you ever been to a drug court graduation? If you ever get invited to one make sure you go," Scott went on. "You're going to hear stories, it's almost like Amazing Grace, 'I'm lost then I'm found.' You hear stories from people, drug addicts for decades, all of a sudden they get into the drug court, they change around, they've got the family back and they're all smiles."

Asked about concerns over the bill from the administration, Scott downplayed any strife. He noted the president and top officials in the administration's criminal justice push, such as deputy attorney general Sally Yates, have praised many of the goals the bill sets out to produce. It's very early in the process, Scott said — the bill hasn't yet gone through the committee "markup" process where language is tweaked and amendments often added — and is not expected to hit the floor for a vote for months. That gives the authors plenty of time to make changes, and Scott said the sponsors have begun asking outsiders for their ideas for changes.

"If people have suggestions or concerns about a subparagraph, we'll obviously be listening," he said. "We've asked groups if they have constructive suggestions to submit them to us in legislative language that we can consider. I would expect the manager's amendment to have some corrections."

Advocates are already rallying around the SAFE Act, which some say is a better bill than many expect to come from the Senate. The SAFE Act was crafted largely without White House involvement, while Yates and other White House officials have been meeting regularly in the Senate as compromise bills are crafted between criminal justice advocates and skeptics on the Judiciary Committee. That means some of the same concerns being discussed now between House authors and the White House may be hammered out before a Senate compromise is revealed.

On a broader level, there's a lot of common ground between the SAFE Act, the Senate efforts and the desires of the White House. Advocates that want to see mandatory minimums for drug sentences end forever probably won't get their wish, but those plugged in to the process all say some changes to mandatory minimums are coming.

The SAFE Act doesn't get rid of mandatory minimums, a prospect that can be politically fraught for politicians fearing negative ads about lowering punishment for drug crimes. Instead, provisions like the drug court and other changes are designed to reduce the number of offenders who qualify for mandatory minimum prison sentences. According to supporters, this brings the current system more in line with the intent of Congress when mandatory minimums were enacted in the first place.

The bill has attracted support from across the political spectrum, including the Koch brothers-backed Right On Crime and progressive groups. The bill recently received a surprising boost when House Speaker John Boehner endorsed it.

Should the divide with the administration expand into a public rift, it would be the first open split within the nascent bipartisan criminal justice reform movement, which for now is in one what prominent advocate called its "Kumbaya phase." Advocates and lawmakers expect that as bills get closer to floor votes in the House and Senate — believed by most to come near year's end — the politics will get tougher.

For now, though, everyone is keeping it civil. Asked to comment on the record about the SAFE Act, a White House official had nothing but praise for the bill and its authors while stopping far short of putting administration support behind the bill.

"We appreciate every bipartisan initiative to achieve meaningful criminal justice reform," the official said. "We are also grateful for the collaborative efforts of so many in the House and the Senate, including Representatives Sensenbrenner and Scott and their co-sponsors, as well as Chairman Goodlatte and Ranking Member Conyers on this important issue. We look forward to continuing to work with members of the House and the Senate, to ensure that meaningful legislation passes that makes our criminal justice system more cost-effective, fairer, and smarter to enhance public safety and the ability of law enforcement to enforce the law and to keep our communities safe."

Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.

Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at evan@buzzfeed.com.

Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Mike Hayes at mike@buzzfeed.com.

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