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October 3, 2014

Should advocates of federal criminal justice reform be rooting for Republicans to take control of Senate?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the closing paragraphs of this new National Journal article. The article is headlined "How Republicans Stopped Being 'Tough on Crime': GOP lawmakers in Congress are moving toward prison reform. Is this the final frontier for bipartisanship?". Here are some extended excerpts from an article that reinforcement my sense that reform advocate might be wise to root for Republicans to have lots of success on Election Day next month:

[M]any Republicans in Congress are moving away from the tough-on-crime philosophy that dominated the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras. At a time when people complain about historic levels of gridlock, there is more bipartisan support for reforming the criminal-justice system than there has been in the past four decades.

This newfound Republican support isn't just the product of tokenism. Among the members of Congress who have cosponsored legislation on this issue are Sens. Rand Paul, John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Rob Portman, and Orrin Hatch, along with Reps. Raul Labrador, Paul Ryan, and Jason Chaffetz.

"This certainly is something that has gained momentum among many Republicans — not all," Lee told National Journal. "There's still a number of Republicans who don't agree with me on this, that this ought to be a priority. But I've been pleased by the number of Republicans who have joined me in this effort."

Of course, that doesn't mean the Republican colleagues always agree with each other. Grassley recently blasted the Smarter Sentencing Act, which was introduced by Lee and Sen. Dick Durbin. The bill would allow federal judges to use their discretion when sentencing some nonviolent drug offenders, instead of having to obey mandatory minimums. Grassley said the bill would "put taxpayers on the hook for close to $1 billion in entitlement spending." What Grassley didn't mention was that the bill would also lead to $4 billion in budget savings over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Levin, the Right on Crime founder, says the financial burdens imposed by the justice system — which often disproportionately targets minorities and hamstrings those not wealthy enough to afford their own attorney — should especially outrage conservatives. "Look, I'm a free-market guy, so I say the fact that rich people can get a better car, nicer jewelry, that's all well and good. But here we're talking about justice," Levin said. "Conservatives ought to be particularly receptive to these things, and I think they are, because at some point it just becomes like a tax."

But Lee emphasized that sentencing reform isn't just a fiscal issue for Republicans. "There's no question that reforming our sentencing system could save us money. I want to point out, though, that that is not our primary objective in this," Lee told National Journal. "An even more important objective involves not the financial costs, but the human costs."

That human cost is very real. The violent-crime rate is the lowest it's been in 20 years, yet there hasn't been a corresponding decrease in incarceration. Nearly a third of the world's female prisoners are incarcerated in the U.S. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of children with a parent in prison increased by 80 percent—so widespread that Sesame Street recently aired a segment dealing with the issue.

The prison population is the oldest it's ever been. In West Virginia, 20 percent of the prison population is over the age of 50. This raises the question: What is the advantage of the U.S. spending billions of dollars to house prisoners who may not present any real public danger?...

Criminal-justice reform has united other odd couples like [Senators Rand] Paul and [Cory] Booker. In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill put forward by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island that would try to triage the likelihood that a prisoner would commit another crime, if released. The law would also give time credits to "low-risk" offenders and allow some to complete their prison sentences under "community supervision."

Cornyn said it's time to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to treating American prisoners. "When I went to law school, we'd learn in criminal law class that rehabilitation was always one of the goals of our criminal justice system. But honestly, in my lifetime, we've done a lousy job at rehabilitating people," Cornyn told National Journal. "Instead, they have taken an approach that's more like warehousing people."

Cornyn said he's confident that if the GOP retakes the Senate in November, prison reform will be one area where they will be able to work with the White House. Even Whitehouse — Cornyn's Democratic counterpart on this legislation — sees this as an upside to a possible Republican-controlled Congress. "Frankly, I think the biggest danger to these bills is not really on their substance. It's just the threat of partisan and obstructive mischief by the more extreme Republican senators," Whitehouse told National Journal. "The motivation for that mischief evaporates once they're in control."

There you have it — prison reform, the final frontier of bipartisan legislation. But as Levin points out, there's just one last thing for Republicans and Democrats working on the issue to sort out: "The only disagreement sometimes is who's gonna get the credit."

A few recent and older related prior posts:

October 3, 2014 at 10:23 AM | Permalink

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Comments

No doubt Chairman Grassley would make criminal justice reform a priority.

Posted by: Jeremy | Oct 3, 2014 10:34:21 AM

Accord with the apparent sarcasm of the first comment.

I take the Republicans will still be able to work with Obama if the Senate is 52-48 (D), and though I appreciate that some Republicans support reform, still think it is a minority of the party. I'm marginally more hopeful with the Democrats controlling the Senate.

Meanwhile, they can support criminal justice reform in other ways, e.g., as you have noted in the past, by use of health reform that has positive criminal justice aspects.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 3, 2014 10:39:58 AM

Reform (at least a libertarian sort of reform) is less likely with a Chairman Grassley than with a Chairman Leahy. The bigger problem, however, remains the House. Unless you have a majority of the Republican caucus (unlikely) supporting the reform, Speaker Boehner will not let the matter reach the floor.

Posted by: tmm | Oct 3, 2014 11:00:59 AM

I think what we need to be rooting for is a wave of anger filling the population that results in them rising up and hanging BOTH parties.

Posted by: rodsmith | Oct 3, 2014 12:51:07 PM

rodsmith:

Because you are not a lawyer, you are one of the few here to see and speak clearly!

Also, I don't always agree with SC, but he is correct in his rent seeking observations.

Either R or D we lose!

Thanks!

Posted by: albeed | Oct 3, 2014 1:34:26 PM

lol your welcome. I also thing then when we start looking for replacements. The first and main qualification must be.

"you have never worked for or served in a gov't office before"

whole new crew with no connections.

Posted by: rodsmith | Oct 5, 2014 1:13:00 AM

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