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May 24, 2014

"Sentencing Debate Reveals Divide Among Republicans"

The title of this post is the headline of a recent article by John Gramlich via CQ News (which, I fear, is trapped behind a pay-wall). Here are excerpts:

A Senate proposal to cut mandatory minimum drug sentences in half has exposed a rift between senior, establishment Republicans who stress their law-and-order credentials and junior, more libertarian-minded members of the party who want to shrink the federal role in incarceration.

Sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, the bill (S 1410) is seen as a candidate for floor action following the Memorial Day recess after being approved by the Judiciary Committee, 13-5, in January. But the measure’s prospects are uncertain, with differences among Republicans becoming increasingly apparent. The bill’s six GOP cosponsors include five first-term senators: Lee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Several of those lawmakers have strong tea party support and view the proposal through a libertarian lens. They cast it as a way to cut taxpayer spending on prisons while preserving individual liberties by doing away with tough penalties for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

By contrast, the bill’s chief Republican opponents are a trio of establishment Republicans who have long pointed to their “tough on crime” bona fides. They are Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, a former state attorney general and judge; Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a former federal prosecutor, and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member and arguably the Senate’s staunchest defender of mandatory minimum penalties....

Beyond the philosophical disagreement, there also appears to be a generational split among Republicans when it comes to sentencing, said William G. Otis, a law professor at Georgetown University and former special counsel to President George H.W. Bush. The average age of the Republicans who voted for the bill in committee earlier this year was 45, as Slate magazine noted in February. The average age of the Republicans who opposed it was 69.

Otis, who opposes the bill, said older Republican senators may be basing their views of the legislation on their personal recollections of the national crime wave that led to tougher criminal sentencing laws.  “For those of us that age, we remember what it was like, because we grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the experience of the crime wave of those two decades is vivid,” Otis said.  “My generation remembers that.  Rand Paul’s generation, Jeff Flake’s generation and Mike Lee’s generation does not.”...

Paul, who is perhaps the Senate’s most prominent Republican supporter of shortening criminal sentences, so far has been unable to persuade Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to back the plan....

Laurie A. Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, said the two senators likely have different constituencies in mind. She noted that Paul may have higher political ambitions and has sought to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party by reaching out to minorities, who often face long criminal sentences for drug crimes. “The way I see the big picture is that Rand Paul seems to be speaking to a national audience right now, rather than a Kentucky audience,” Rhodebeck said. “I assume that’s in keeping with his possible interest in running for the GOP nomination in 2016.”...

To be sure, Democrats may not be united within their own ranks on the bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., both have expressed reservations about it, even though they agreed to advance the measure to the full Senate. GOP support for the proposal, meanwhile, is not limited only to first-term senators who are identified with the tea party. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is the sixth GOP cosponsor of the bill and has served in the Senate since 2005.

But the Republican split could be a consequential factor in whether the proposal reaches the floor in an election year in which control of the Senate is at stake. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated he would like to bring up the proposal, but Durbin has suggested that there may be complications in rounding up the votes for passage. A divide among outside conservative advocates may be among the complications.

At a forum this week of conservatives in favor of overhauling the nation’s criminal justice policies, prominent figures including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former National Rifle Association President David Keene made the case for a less punitive approach....

But a group of prominent former federal prosecutors, including two former Republican attorneys general, wrote to Reid and McConnell earlier this month to urge them not to bring the sentencing bill to the floor. Like Grassley and the other Senate Republicans, they warned it would threaten public safety.

I would put a slightly different spin than Bill Otis on the notable fact that the "average age of the Republicans who voted for the [SSA] in committee earlier this year was 45 [while the] average age of the Republicans who opposed it was 69." I would say that supporters of the bill understand that new political and legal realities may call for changing laws passed decades ago, whereas opponents of the bill see little need to update these sentencing laws for modern times.

Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

May 24, 2014 at 10:46 AM | Permalink


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Now 44-years-old, I also vividly remember the violence and crime of the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly when crack first came to Greater Cincinnati. The difference between me and Jeff Sessions isn't that he remembers and I don't. It's that I will acknowledge that the drug war has failed, and "tough on crime" is not the same as being smart about crime reduction.

That, and I'm not vested in extremely long mandatory minimum sentences as part of my congressional legacy . . .

Posted by: Jay Hurst | May 24, 2014 9:28:51 PM

To me, those that have the capilibilty and desure to learn, thats where the key is.
I'm not suggesting that college be swapped for prison. But if we could cut the sentences in half and offer Tech classes yhat actually teach job skills, not govt programs that pD those that implement them.

Give you a fish and you eat today. Teach you how to fish and I feed you for life.
There is a lot of truth in this

Tech pgms: welding, construction, fork lift operation, hvac, excell and word for all of them. Short short drug classes that get to the meat and move on with life skills.
Send failures for abuseing the pgms back for a refresher with free goumet meals and R & B. Short stays, a jolt, heads up. Not a plce to spend decades.

Of coarse there a pct that just belongs in the slammer, so ve it.

Eliminate the BOP and justice dept as mAjor employers. How can it dail any worse than what we have now. Its just that the politicians look vad if soft on crime.

Posted by: Midwest Guy | May 25, 2014 11:26:21 AM

My typeos are in multitude and look terrible. The ipad is not so good for 1 finger plinking.

Posted by: Midwest Guy | May 25, 2014 11:29:23 AM

Many younger lawyers do not know the real reason for the mandatory guidelines. They were not to equalize, rationalize. They were to take the discretion from pro-criminal judges, whose jobs depended on maintaining high crime rates. They were to increase sentences, not to reduce them, to incapacitate criminals, and to reduce the crime rate.

They did, by 40% across the board. They were the greatest lawyer achievement of the 20th Century. They saved us and the lawyer profession from the fury of the crime weary public. Their benefit is exponential. Those bastards in prison, cannot impregnate a long series of ghetto hussies, sparing us the crimes of each of their 10 kids who were not spawned. That drop in the crime rate was a factor in the boom time of the 1990's, in the real estate boom, adding $trillions in value to the economy.

One other consequence? Massive lawyer unemployment. So, Scalia, the most conservative Justice, led the charge against them, showing rent seeking trumps all ideology.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 25, 2014 7:52:55 PM

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