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July 14, 2015

In praise of GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner making the moral case for sentencing reform

Download (5)Most long-time federal sentencing reform advocates likely have long shared my concern that Wisconsin GOP Representative James Sensenbrenner was a significant impediment to achieving significant federal sentencing reform.  Indeed, as noted in this prior post, as recently as two years ago, Rep. Sensenbrenner was defending federal mandatory minimum statutes on very dubious grounds.  

But now that Rep Sensenbrenner has been working for a couple years on bipartian federal criminal justice reform, he is a co-sponsor of the important SAFE Act  (details here) and today delivered this potent testimony to the GOP-controlled House to support his call for significant sentencing reform.  Here is an excerpt from the testimonty I found especially notable and important (with my emphasis added):  

Over the past three decades, America’s federal prison population has more than quadrupled — from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million today.  Prison spending has increased by 595 percent, a staggering figure that is both irresponsible and unsustainable.

And yet, this increased spending has not yielded results.  More than 40 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years of release, and in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent. Several studies have found that, past a certain point, high incarceration rates are counterproductive and actually cause the crime rate to go up.

Especially among low risk offenders, long prison sentences increase the risk of recidivism because they sever the ties between the inmate and his family and community.  These are the ties we need to help reintegrate offenders as productive members of society.

These severed ties are also at the heart of the moral case for reform.  It’s not just the people in prison who are paying the punishment for their crimes.  Mass incarceration tears families apart and deprives children of their fathers and mothers.  It likely means a loss of job, possibly home, and any support he or she had within the community.

And that’s where we are with our sentencing policy — we’re spending more, getting less, and destroying communities in the process.  The system is broke, and it’s our job to fix it.

It is remarkable and a true sign of the modern sentencing times that this reform rhetoric, which sounds more like a passage from an opinion or article by Wisconsin District Judge Lynn Adelman, is coming from GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner. And the adjectives I have stressed in the quoted passage are, in my view, at the heart of the most compelling case for federal reforms and a broad response to modern mass incarceration: the current system is broken and counterproductive, irresponsible and unsustainable, but even beyond any data-driven, cost/benefit analysis, there is a powerful "moral case for reform" that resonates with the commitment to liberty, family, community and limited government that triggered the American Revolution.

Prior related post:

July 14, 2015 at 11:09 AM | Permalink


Almost (except for one word) speechless..... WOW!!!
Stan Adelman (Visiting Prof, New Mexico School of Law)

Posted by: Stan Adelman | Jul 14, 2015 12:42:13 PM

He has also been a leader in voting rights: http://sensenbrenner.house.gov/legislation/voting-rights-act.htm

"The Voting Rights Act (VRA) is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed and is vital to our commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process. It began a healing process that ameliorated decades of discrimination and helped distinguish a democracy that serves as an example for the world. Free, fair, and accessible elections are sacrosanct, and the right of every legal voter to cast their ballot must be unassailable. The VRA broke from past attempts to end voter discrimination by requiring federal preclearance of changes to voting laws in areas with documented histories of discrimination. There is no acceptable remedy for an unfair election after the fact. Section 5 of the VRA was the only federal remedy that could stop discriminatory practices before they affected elections."

There is a moral strand in both parties and credit where credit is due. Thanks, Rep. S.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 14, 2015 12:45:06 PM

Amazing to hear Rep. Sensenbrenner refer to "mass incarceration." Three years ago, that term was controversial. Now Republicans are using it as a statement of fact.

Posted by: Jeremy | Jul 14, 2015 2:14:21 PM

So let me be the Negative Nancy. These are high sounding words but my fear is that the result of these call for reform what is going to happen is that in exchange for narrowing the scope of offenders those who remain will be expected to bear a much larger proportion of the burden. This is the heart of what Grassley wants to do: ok, we will beat less people but that means the people that remain have to be beaten that much harder.

That's reform but not meaningful reform.

Posted by: Daniel | Jul 14, 2015 7:37:13 PM

The good rep misspoke, unfortunately. The federal prison population nowhere near 2.3 million. I assume he meant the national incarcerated population, which includes all jails and prisons and covers the feds, states and locals.

Posted by: Tim | Jul 15, 2015 3:36:41 AM

This guy is a hypocrite , wasn't he the one who help pass the adam walsh act with little debate, protect act, and patriot act.

Posted by: alex | Jul 16, 2015 8:27:42 PM

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