« "Lawyers worry new measure of mental retardation could prompt more executions" | Main | After three PA murder convictions, which form of LWOP will abortion doctor get? »

May 13, 2013

Noting some new GOP sentencing reform voices inside the Beltway

Cap hillThis notable new article, amusingly headlined "An End to the Jailhouse Blues?", authored by By John Gramlich and appearing in CQ Weekly discusses what I am inclined to call the "new right on criminal justice reform" on the Hill.  Here are excerpts:

Congressional Democrats have argued for years that too many low-level drug offenders are locked away in federal prisons and that mandatory-sentencing laws disproportionately harm minorities and tie judges’ hands.  Lately, they have been joined in those criticisms by Sen. Rand Paul, a tea-party-backed Republican with White House aspirations.  “I think the Republican Party could grow more if we had a little bit more of a compassionate outlook,” the Kentuckian says.

Paul is emblematic of a quiet but unmistakable shift among conservatives in Congress when it comes to criminal justice.  Not only are Republicans engaging in a serious debate about relaxing federal criminal penalties — an idea that was once anathema to lawmakers who worried that their next campaign opponent would label them “soft on crime” — they are leading the discussion.

The House Judiciary Committee, which has poured cold water on Democratic priorities since Republicans regained control of the chamber in 2010, last week created a bipartisan, 10-member task force that will conduct a six-month analysis of the estimated 4,500 crimes on the federal books.

The task force will examine “overcriminalization” in the federal justice system and evaluate what Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte calls an “ever-increasing labyrinth” of criminal penalties, some of them for relatively minor crimes in which perpetrators may not have realized they were breaking the law. The Virginia Republican cited the example of an 11-year-old girl who “saved a baby woodpecker from the family cat” but received a $535 fine because of a federal law banning the possession of a migratory bird.

The panel will be led by law-and-order Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner and Virginia Democrat Robert C. Scott, an outspoken critic of more-contentious criminal policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing, which the task force will also evaluate. A diverse range of groups endorses the effort, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

At the same time, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal prison spending, Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, plans to work with his Democratic ranking member, Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, to create a separate task force to review all aspects of the rapidly growing federal correctional system. Wolf is outraged that federal prisoners are not provided more opportunities to gain work experience and believes the Bureau of Prisons is holding too many people, including ill older inmates who no longer pose a threat to society. A report by the Justice Department’s inspector general recently came to the same conclusion.

“If you’re 68 years old and you’re dying of cancer and your life expectancy is seven months, why do we want to keep you in prison?” Wolf says.

Then there is Paul, who perhaps more than any other Senate Republican aligns with Democrats on sentencing issues. Paul is co-sponsoring a bill with Democratic Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont that would allow federal judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences under certain conditions — a so-called “safety valve” that effectively would do away with congressionally mandated punishments in many cases. Similar House legislation is co-sponsored by Scott and another Kentucky Republican, Thomas Massie. “Some of the sentencing has been disproportionately unfair to African-Americans, and so I am for getting rid of the mandatory minimums or letting judges override them,” Paul says.

He argues that young drug offenders, in particular, are vulnerable to overly harsh punishments and points out that each of the past three presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — was “accused of doing drugs as a kid.... Had they been caught, none of them would have ever been president,” he says. “Just by luck of not being caught, they did fine. But a lot of kids don’t.”...

If Republicans sound kinder and gentler on criminal justice today than they did two decades ago, their perspective has been guided by cold, hard numbers.

Goodlatte last week cited statistics showing that Congress has added an average of 500 new crimes to the law books in each of the past three decades. Those federal crimes overlap with scores of existing penalties for the same crimes enacted by the states, which handle the vast majority of the nation’s criminal trials.

The creation of hundreds of new federal crimes, combined with mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the 1984 elimination of parole for federal offenders, has resulted in a steady and costly uptick in the federal prison population. The federal corrections system is now the largest in the country, much larger than state systems in Texas and California.

In fiscal 2006, the Bureau of Prisons had 192,584 inmates. Five years later, the number had grown 14 percent to 218,936, according to a November report by the Justice Department inspector general.

Massie, formerly the top elected official in Lewis County, Ky., says his perspective has been shaped by his experience managing a local budget, where he says his “biggest line item” was incarceration. The first-term lawmaker backs a bipartisan corrections overhaul that Kentucky enacted in 2011 and said Republicans on the federal level should embrace similar changes because mass incarceration runs counter to established GOP principles on government spending. “I call it socialism with constrained mobility,” Massie says. “You’re paying for all their medical costs. You’re paying for all their food, all their housing. You’ve got to have air conditioning. Jails are not cheap.”

While the dialogue may be changing, passing legislation, as always, is another story. Even the idea of studying the criminal justice system proved too controversial in the Senate in 2011, when a national commission proposed by former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia fell to partisan fighting.

The House task force might agree to weed out relatively minor crimes such as possession of a migratory bird — the kind of regulations Republicans tend to view as government overreach — but it may be less inclined to rethink the mandatory minimum sentences that many Democrats abhor....

While the challenges are clear, those who support the GOP-led discussion surrounding criminal justice say it is encouraging that the debate is happening at all. It’s a significant step forward that a bipartisan group of legislators is really for the first time looking in a very serious way at ways to try to get their arms around this behemoth,” says John G. Malcolm, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Some recent and older related posts:

May 13, 2013 at 01:31 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e201901c21bace970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Noting some new GOP sentencing reform voices inside the Beltway:

Comments

i am a senior female who is in agreement with you on this law.many a young person is in prison for life for non violent drug crimes.while they deserved to be punished they should not have had to forfit their whole life.this law is in dire need of being changed.

Posted by: clara emerson | May 13, 2013 6:56:56 PM

Doug:

Let me beat someone to the punch:

Don't you know that is because of the harsh penalties, the creation of federal cases and the addition of many useless laws (Adam Walsh for one) that we have had the greatest decline in reported crimes in human memory.

When the crime rate skyrockets, don't come crying to me.

The lawful denigration of whole classes of people as subhuman has had this positive impact. (sarcasm)

Posted by: albeed | May 13, 2013 10:00:55 PM

A staunch defender of the government and the greater good said in comments to a previous post that suggested that what was initially reported should be tempered based on the government comments and current media:

"I've been having a load of fun suggesting that some lunatic pro-defense wahoo would say these Ohio arrests were all staged -- some kind of government/media conspiracy -- but I never expected to be proved so right so quickly.

Thank you!"

Why execute one person when you might be able to get away with three.

Posted by: albeed | May 13, 2013 10:30:36 PM

"Why execute one person when you might be able to get away with three."

Why execute anyone when everything that happens is the government's fault, and Castro, the poor fellow, is the innocent victim of a media conspiracy?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 13, 2013 10:40:37 PM

Bill:

"The task force will examine “overcriminalization” in the federal justice system and evaluate what Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte calls an “ever-increasing labyrinth” of criminal penalties, some of them for relatively minor crimes in which perpetrators may not have realized they were breaking the law. The Virginia Republican cited the example of an 11-year-old girl who “saved a baby woodpecker from the family cat” but received a $535 fine because of a federal law banning the possession of a migratory bird."

Doesn't the good chairman realize that the proper DOJ response is to send in the SWAT Team, perp walk the 11 year old girl and deny her bond, you know, to set an example!

It wouldn't be so funny if it was realized that the "official energy policy" of the good old US of A (windmills) will kill thousands if not hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

And ethanol is the biggest energy boon-doggle of them all. Not only is it a waste of overall energy, it will ruin your car at the same time.

Oh, and of the twenty or so cases of "terrorism" reported since 2001, the 3 that were untainted by federal participation were stopped by citizens or the incompetence of the perpetrator. The remaining ones were instigated by the good old feds as a mjor initiator and/or contributor.

Yeh! I am proud of our current federal legal system and its contribution to our social schizophrenia.

Posted by: albeed | May 14, 2013 8:29:08 AM

albeed --

"Oh, and of the twenty or so cases of "terrorism" reported since 2001, the 3 that were untainted by federal participation were stopped by citizens or the incompetence of the perpetrator. The remaining ones were instigated by the good old feds as a mjor initiator and/or contributor."

So it's the feds, not al Qaeda. That's great, albeed.

Hey, look, while you're at it, why don't you describe, in detail, how Bush (a government employee) orchestrated 9-11, and Obama (another government employee) was born in Africa.

The government deserves scrutiny, not blind hate. When you get the difference, let me know.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 14, 2013 10:25:09 AM

Bill:

I want you to read what I am about to say carefully. You and I are not so different, however, I consider myself a true conservative and not a “faux” conservative.

The most important function of “our” government is to Protect the Rights and Liberties of All of Its Citizens. It is not to protect them from Big Macs, 32 oz. drinks, second-hand smoke or any other conceivable harm. Even acknowledged tyrannies can do the latter.

When the US federal government consumed 5% of GDP (most of its history) we were mostly alright (Civil War and Slavery not withstanding). Now that it consumes over 20% of GDP, something is terribly out of whack and its fingers are everywhere.

As a starter, I am against federal SO State extortion laws because they are not narrowly tailored, have not been shown to be effective and are the lawful denigration of a class of people (many of whom have caused NO HARM) to subhuman standards. Your friend Sensenbrenner was less than honest and on the ball for supporting the Adam Walsh Act. In his political calculus, he overestimated the personal benefits and did not care about the abrogation of rights the law brought about.

I do not have an ax to grind if you want the DP for serial rapists or LWOP for real child molesters.

Posted by: albeed | May 14, 2013 12:03:49 PM

"So it's the feds, not al Qaeda. That's great, albeed.

Hey, look, while you're at it, why don't you describe, in detail, how Bush (a government employee) orchestrated 9-11, and Obama (another government employee) was born in Africa.

The government deserves scrutiny, not blind hate. When you get the difference, let me know."

Bill: In response to your attack, Al Qaeda orchestrated 9/11, I don't know where Obama was born and I don't really care at this point.

Someone needs to scrutinize the government and our current media are terrible when it comes to being critical of governement actions and never challenge the current platitudes and half truths which are as damaging as outright lies. I hold the 4th rail equally responsible for dumbing us down. If I didn't care I wouldn't say anything but I do care.

I have worked with federal employees for 20+ years and many are responsible but downright limited in their scope. They choose this limitation deliberately as to make their world livable and justify themselves.

I am a scientist/engineer by education/experience with extensive working knowledge of several areas of the CFR. If I were a lawyer, I would also be crazy but then I would be redundant.

Posted by: albeed | May 14, 2013 3:18:45 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB