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Pope Francis Unlikely to Influence Sentencing Bill

Sen. John Cornyn and Sen. Charles "Chuck" Grassley both expect a criminal justice package to be introduced soon (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Argentine-born Pope Francis will visit prisoners in Philadelphia this week, fueling speculation that he'll make criminal justice reform part of his message on Thursday to Congress.  

But even though Sen. Charles E. Grassley has shown a willingness to revisit federal sentencing laws, the tough-on-crime chairman of the Judiciary Committee is unlikely to be persuaded by the Vatican leader. "We legislate according to American people," the Iowa Republican told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday.  

A bill to reduce the number of federal prisoners is expected to be introduced in the committee soon, highlighting what's being considered an evolution  of sorts on the issue by Grassley.  

Grassley couldn't say when the bill would come when he spoke with CQ Roll Call. But he did say staff was working out the wording of a last-minute detail — although he wouldn't say what the detail was.  

Grassley, a Baptist, pointed out that both he and the Pope Francis agree on the need for some kind of sentencing reform. And while he's unlikely to be phased by the pontiff's message, Judiciary member Chris Coons, D-Del., said that he is "thrilled" the Catholic leader is raising the issue.  

"I've heard he's going to visit with prisoners in Philadelphia and I expect he's going to make a pointed reference to it in his address to Congress and I welcome that," Coons, a Presbyterian, said, while noting the role Catholicism has had in contributing to the "foundation of America's spiritual tradition."  

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, another committee member, who has been a leader in the effort to overhaul parts of the criminal justice system, said the tie in with religion is "a good thing."  

"A lot of prisoners I know have benefitted from religious opportunities they've had in prison, where they've had a chance to transform their lives," the former Texas Supreme Court justice said. "Frankly, that's what it takes for a lot of folks to get back on the right track."

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