December 14, 2017
Does the election of Doug Jones in Alabama increase the prospects of federal statutory sentencing reform?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Marshall Project piece headlined "What the Doug Jones Election Means for Criminal Justice Reform." The subheadline of the piece, "The Alabama Democrat represents the flip-side of his predecessor," perhaps best frames the article that follows, and here are excerpts:
Last year, prospects were looking good for a bipartisan effort in Congress to overhaul federal sentencing. But after long and careful negotiations, one senator almost single-handedly torpedoed the measure: the junior Republican from Alabama, Jeff Sessions.
Sessions, of course, went on to become Attorney General, dimming hopes even further. But Tuesday’s election of his unlikely replacement, Democrat Doug Jones, hands the seat to a former federal prosecutor who has advocated for less harsh sentencing and more alternatives to prison. “Doug Jones was a groundbreaking voice for prosecutorial reform to end mass incarceration,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “He was one of the first prosecutors to speak out about how prosecutors can and should help reduce unnecessary incarceration.”
Jones, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, was best known as a prosecutor for securing the convictions of two former Ku Klux Klan members in the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four young black girls. The men were convicted in 2001 and 2002.
Over the last few years, Jones, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday after his victory, has begun to openly push for changes that would give prosecutors more leeway. He included criminal justice among his top campaign priorities, taking aim at mandatory minimum sentencing, disparities that send a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos to prison, and “three strikes” laws. “These are bipartisan issues Democrats and Republicans agree on,” Jones told a group of Alabama State University students last month. “Try to reduce the crime, keep our communities safer and at the same time cut down the costs of the criminal justice system.”...
It’s too soon to tell what Jones’ election means for federal sentencing reform. Progress stalled under President Donald Trump, and Sessions has stayed true to his law-and-order roots, calling on U.S. Attorneys to seek the highest possible charges and rolling back a guideline that had allowed prosecutors to ignore some drug charges. Legislators and advocates instead have focused on trying to create more re-entry programs, prison educational opportunities and job skills training.
But Jones’ election elevates one of the effort’s most vocal supporters. Two years ago, Jones and another former federal prosecutor, James E. Johnson, and other law enforcement officials formed Law Enforcement Leaders To Reduce Crime & Incarceration, a bipartisan, reform-minded advocacy group. Jones was among members who signed a letter supporting the effort that ultimately died in Congress.... “While I sought harsh punishments for violent offenders as U.S. attorney, not all cases require severe sentences,” Jones wrote on his website. “Judges and prosecutors should be given flexibility and be empowered to decide the fate of those before them in the justice system.”
For the time being, the prospects of any congressional federal sentencing reform rests primarily in the hands of Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Prez Donald Trump. Senator McConnell can refuse (and so far has refused) to bring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act up for a floor vote even though some GOP Senators have said, as noted here, the SCRA could get 70 votes in the Senate right now. But the SCRA surely would not get 70 votes in Prez Trump were to come out vocally against it, and Senator McConnell surely will not bring it up for a floor vote if he knows doing so would be against the wishes of Prez Trump. Those realities likely mean that the new Senate 51-49 math and the new voice of Senator-elect Jones will not in any major way directly impact the prospects for congressional federal sentencing reforms in the months ahead.
That all said, I do think the Jones victory in Alabama still has some political ripples in the arena of crime and punishment. As he did in the gubernatorial race in Virginia, Prez Trump used his Twitter thumbs to make a "weak on crime" attack on the Democratic candidate in Alabama. That candidate still prevailed, and did particularly well in the suburbs where it is often thought the "soft on crime" epithet is most effective (although surely other factors mattered to suburban Alabama voters earlier this week). Including the New Jersey race for governor also decided last month, we can and should now say that in the last three significant state-wide elections, the candidate obviously more supportive of criminal justice reform prevailed.
I make these points not to assert that many political candidates are going to now view criminal justice reform advocacy as a winning political strategy, although I expect (and hope) some will. Rather, I am making the more subtle (but important) point that no current politician or would-be candidate should any more be unduly afraid that supporting criminal justice reform could doom them in the next political cycle. For much of the last half-century, the conventional wisdom was that any politician who could be effectively painted as soft on crime was sure to lose in the next election (and I suspect this conventional wisdom in part accounts for why so little significant criminal justice reform was actually achieved during the Obama era). With every significant victory by any person who calls for criminal justice reform on the campaign trail, that old conventional wisdom becomes much less conventional and much less wise.
December 14, 2017 at 04:58 PM | Permalink
Millennials have not lived in a high crime era. When they become the majority, you will be able to run this lawyer scam. Unfortunately, 100 is the new 60. So, bring this subject up again in 30 years.
Posted by: David Behar | Dec 14, 2017 8:07:15 PM
"Does the election of Doug Jones in Alabama increase the prospects of federal statutory sentencing reform?"
Posted by: Evan | Dec 17, 2017 12:15:23 AM