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April 30, 2021

Prez Biden gets timely reminder that criminal justice reform presents unique bipartisan opportunity

I complained in this post that Prez Biden did not have all that much to say about criminal justice issues in his lengthy speech to Congress this week. But I now see from a number of news reports that criminal justice reform got some brief, but especially notable, bipartisan attention after the speech.  This Washington Post piece, headlined "GOP lawmaker who voted to overturn Biden’s election win wants to help him on criminal justice reform," provides these details:

Moments after President Biden concluded his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, he was greeted by lawmakers aiming to get in some coveted face time with the president.  Among them was Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.), who helped barricade the entrance of the House Chamber during the insurrection Jan. 6 but still voted to overturn the election that Biden won.

But in a brief exchange Wednesday night, Nehls, wearing a Texas-flag mask, introduced himself to Biden as “a sheriff from Texas” and offered his experience policing Fort Bend County to help with the president’s efforts on criminal justice reform.  “I want to help with the criminal justice reform. I want to be a part of it. It’s needed,” he said to the president. “I don’t know how to reach out to you, but I have the experience.”

In response, Biden assured him they’d be in touch, saying, “I’ll reach out to you.”... A White House official told The Washington Post on Thursday that Biden “appreciated Rep. Nehls’s offer and their conversation.”...

During last year’s GOP primary for an open seat in Congress, Nehls painted himself as a fierce Trump advocate.  Texas Monthly reported that he stated on his campaign website how he would “stand with President Trump to defeat the socialist Democrats, build the wall, drain the swamp, and deliver on pro-economy and pro-America policies.”  After he secured the nomination, Nehls pivoted to a more moderate approach for the general election, focusing on health care and criminal justice reform.  He also removed the “Standing with Trump” section from his website as Trump’s approval among Republicans was waning, according to the Houston Chronicle.  He went on to defeat his Democratic opponent, Sri Preston Kulkarni, by seven percentage points in November....

On Wednesday night, Nehls tweeted during the speech about the president’s handling of the southern border and slammed Democrats for reportedly handing out masks in the Chamber that were made in China. But in their exchange on criminal justice reform, Nehls took on a much different tone than the one he used on Twitter.

“I don’t want to hurt your reputation,” the president said to Nehls of his offer, according to video of the moment. Before Biden went to talk to another lawmaker, Nehls made his final plea: “I can do a whole lot of good in that conversation.”

This Texas Tribune article, headlined "Freshman GOP Texas congressman made a personal pitch to Joe Biden: Let me help with criminal justice reform," provides some more details concerning the type of reforms that Rep Nehls seems eager to champion:

Biden administration staff reached out to Nehls' office on Thursday morning, according to Nehls spokesman Daniel Gribble.  Gribble added that Nehls is "optimistic about common sense reforms they can accomplish" and the congressman's focus is "recidivism reduction through inmate training programs."

"As Sheriff, Rep Nehls implemented HVAC and welding programs for non-violent inmates at the county jail," Gribble said.  "He had wild success reducing the 2 year re-arrest rate with participating inmates.  He’d like to see similar programs available in County jails across the country and is working on legislation that will make that possible."

April 30, 2021 at 03:12 PM | Permalink


As I noted, he actually did have something to say about various criminal justice issues.

I saw the reference to the person who personally reached out to Biden. Biden's reaction matches at least the standard line he has long promoted -- a willingness to work with people across the table. Time will tell how much this will work out in criminal justice matters.

Replies on Twitter noted that person had a suspect criminal justice record. One moves on from there, I guess, looking at the present. I note the excerpt doesn't include this from one of the articles that touches upon my comment there:

"Democrats, meanwhile, sought to bring attention to his record that includes a history of alleged misconduct — he was fired from a prior policing job after committing 19 violations in one year — and complaints about his Fort Bend department's methods."

Again, you focus on the good when seeking allies. He could point to some of that. Realistically, a successful local law official will not be just some sort of hack simply because you can work that way and get stuff done.

But, gung ho Trump support means aiding and abetting someone horrible on criminal justice in various respects. When people are wary about working with such people, it is not completely unreasonable. Bridges can be built though (see, e.g., an account in "Children Under Fire" where the person behind the Dickey Amendment eventually worked with someone supportive of gun research).

The fact someone reached out like this suggests just maybe there is a chance for movement with Biden, someone with certain strengthens and benefits the last two people had less of.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 30, 2021 5:20:57 PM

Definitely someone who tolerated insurrection and took part in trying to overturn the election is hard to stomach. It seems like he may have been a lousy cop and sheriff too, so I certainly wouldn't have hired or voted for him had it been up to me. But that's not his current job description; he's a representative now. While the programs he's proposing seem fairly small-bore (that might be a police pun), as long as they're implemented in a reasonable way (i.e., not just becoming a slush fund for sheriff's departments), they could be an improvement. So, I suppose it's no harm to just hear him out. Biden can also get a dose of that bipartisanship the squishy centrist types are always clamoring for, whatever difference that makes. I guess the extremely cynical take would be this guy wants to focus on training programs as a diversion from other policing issues that are getting hotly debated recently. Maybe so, but maybe a little incremental progress can still come out of it.

Posted by: hardreaders | Apr 30, 2021 5:55:49 PM

The important broader point, Joe and hardreaders, is that it is hard to envision many other issues on which Rep Nehls --- and Senators Grassley and Lee and Paul and Wicker and many other GOP folks --- would be so actively eager to express such interest in working with Prez Biden to move forward reforms. Whatever their speific background and possible baggage, there are a good number of elected GOP members of Congress who seem sincerely committed to help achieve various forms of criminal justice reform. I am pleased Prez Biden expressed interest in working with Rep Nehls, and I am hopeful sound GOP reform ideas and brader GOP support in this arena can be harnessed for the collective good.

There will surely be disagreement as to the particulars, but something (perhaps a lot) can and should get done if Prez Biden makes these issues a priority for his Administration. Moreover, whether bipartisanship is a real interest or just a talking point for Biden, getting some work done in this space allows him to prove he wants to work together to move reform forward where there is some consensus.

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 30, 2021 8:16:25 PM

Don't get me wrong, if Nehls ultimately does contribute to some reform, even if minor, I'll certainly be giving him appropriate credit. As with sentencing, I think a very small set of people are 100% completely beyond reform, or at least beyond aging out of bad tendencies, but certainly anyone in the insurrection/overturning camp has the longest way to go before (re)gaining trust, if ever. So that's why I'm skeptical, based on the established track record, which I think is utterly fair. But again, I certainly hope something positive results. I just don't get why there seems to be suspicion of Biden. AFAIK nothing in his history suggests he would refuse an offer of bipartisan cooperation—provided, of course and importantly, that it's made in good faith. Like I've said, I think it's pretty well known already that he and Congressional Democrats generally have that interest. Maybe that's why they don't constantly broadcast it. I would say the ball's more in Republicans court for them to decide if they have interest too. Nehls seems like it might be a good sign; we'll see if there's more to follow. That's sort of the whole reason it's news when a Republican brings it up, right? For Democrats it's just assumed, and rightly I think.

Posted by: hardreaders | Apr 30, 2021 8:58:59 PM

I do not doubt that Prez Biden is willing and able to embrace (and even enhance) bipartisan cooperation in this reform area. What is quite in doubt is whether Biden and his policy team will prioritize action in this area.

Biden spoke for 65 minutes to Congress this week, and only 2 or so minutes focused on criminal justice issues and there was ZERO mention of sentencing reform. Ergo my concern.

Because many advocates, on both the left and the right, are likely to be advocating persistently on these issues, I expect Biden and his team will be somewhat active in this space. But, so far, at the 100-day mark, advocates have to be hoping for more and more efforts by the Reo Nehls and others across the aisle.

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 30, 2021 9:26:50 PM

I certainly understand how from the advocate's perspective not getting a shoutout for sentencing is a bit of a letdown. But I don't quite get the point about "priorities". Other than some temporary warm fuzzies, what real difference does it make if he does a shoutout or not? Again, I think it's no secret that many Democrats are interested in and in fact already working on the issue. The Republicans last I checked are grown adults (or at least purport to be) and nothing is stopping them from taking some of their own initiative, like we have now seen with Nehls. Also, it's not like the issue is so obscure that if Biden doesn't bring it up in a speech people will just forget. Joe will grok this I think, but it's sort of like a variation of Murc's Law. Republicans have agency too and it's not like Biden and the Democrats have to go around doing everyone else's jobs for them. As I've said, if there's truly a concern that some people aren't hearing about the issue enough, it is permissible to go advocate with them directly. Insisting that Biden has to be the conduit for everything I think is a little preaching to the choir and also circuitous in getting the message out.

Finally, I'm so embarrassed that it took me until comment #3 to say this, but: There's a new sheriff in (the Congressional) town!

Posted by: hardreaders | Apr 30, 2021 10:04:26 PM

Sen. Grassley again recently supported televised Supreme Court hearings, joining a bipartisan effort in that regard.

Democrats over the years repeatedly have cited how Republicans across the aisle have supported them in various respects. This one area is not the only thing where there is potential. Again, given the blog's focus, its understandable it is focused on it particularly. But, there still warrants a sense of perspective there.

It's nice this guy went up to Biden, but the account has a spin job flavor. As I noted, his past record is selectively cited. hardreaders notes his new job. Fine enough, but one's past career is likely to influence one's House record. Thus, it is suggested maybe modest reforms will be used to balance/cover opposition to more serious police reform. Unclear. But, it is right to judge him on his whole record, a fair neutral accounting part of realistic strategy.

There already was a joint effort, cited by Biden's address, about the anti-Asian hate legislation. Which has a criminal justice aspect, including the details in the bill. This is just one thing already supported by Democrats and the Biden Administration advancing criminal justice. The address again, using "criminal justice," not a narrow subset, covered multiple issues there.

Actions were already taken by the Biden Justice Department that shows specific real actions in the area of criminal justice, focusing on wrongdoing of local police departments. It's just one thing, as I said that he did. The Administration very well seems to be taking criminal justice, even at this early date seriously. Not just a "talking point."

I appreciate h's reference to "Murc's law" familiar to a different blog. Trump is graded on a curve, his problems even in respect to criminal justice ignored repeatedly & his superiority even in a limited fashion a result of selective and questionable praise (see hardreaders ultimate comments in the past thread).

Meanwhile, Biden is looked at with suspicion and deemed likely to fail (maybe if he made my specialty a "priority" ... nothing else for him to worry about after all) in April of his first year, even as his Administration and party already did something positive.

New Administration, but same old story. It's at this point not surprising and on that front not even disappointing. It's just tiresome.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 30, 2021 11:21:32 PM

Joe's points are all very well taken. I appreciate the mention of Grassley. Even someone like him can on occasion be an ally for reform. Although, while very exciting for the diehards like present company, it's not exactly game-changing stuff. For an older example of doing meatier stuff, despite all his flaws and totally undeserved "maverick" reputation, McCain was quite good on campaign finance reform. They literally put "bipartisan" in the name of the act. :)

Basically it boils down to this. If they show interest on something, minor or not, and it's in good faith—Joe notes possible reasons to be skeptical here—then great, let's hurry up and get it done. But at this point, nobody's going to waste time waiting for cooperation on issues where it's clearly not forthcoming; they're just going to move on and move ahead on their own.

Posted by: hardreaders | Apr 30, 2021 11:51:53 PM

You folks seem mostly interested in talking about current political discourses in general or various broad aspect of criminal justice politics and policy in general. That's fine, but in any context it seems strange to assert "what real difference does it make" if a Prez, in his first big speech to Congress, signals that he cares a lot about a particular issue.

If a Prez leans into an issue, it will get a lot more attention with lawmakers and others; if a Prez leans away from an issue, it will get less. And because criminal justice reform has so many potential elements --- from police reform to bail reform to prosecution/defense funding/priorities/practices to sentencing law to prison reform to reentry/collateral consequences and so much more --- whatever particular part of this story a Prez prioritizes in this space will surely get the most legislative attention short- and long-term.

It make perfect sense, politically and practically, that Biden and his team (including folks he puts at DOJ) will focus first and mostly on policing issues. But so much more is getting done with bipartisan support at the state level, and there is so much more that I think needs to be done in the sentencing space. I want Biden and his team to lean into these issues, and I expect they will before too long (e.g., I am expecting some clemency action this year). It is understandable that he has not yet done or even said much on sentencing issues, but that is still disappointing and means that action on these issues are less likely to happen soon, if at all.

Sen Grassley's long-standing support for cameras in federal courtrooms is a great example of how a Prez statement can matter. I believe both Obama and Trump completely ignored this issue, even though there is bipartisan support, and so the topic gets very little attention. Grassley re-introduced his bill in March and his co-sponsors include Amy Klobuchar, John Cornyn, Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey. That is a lot of Senate power, and yet nobody is talking about this bill, and I doubt it will be moving anytime soon. But imagine if Prez Biden just said one sentence like "And the Chauvin trial highlighted the value and virtues of the public being able to watch justice in action, and I would like to see Congress ensure federal proceedings are also similarly transparent."

I think just a single sentence like that would make a huge difference in the whether this kind of bipartisan bill gets more attention from Congress and the media. Having a Prez prioritize an issue does not ensure any particular action by Congress, but it shapes the terms and intensity of the debate (regardless of the surrounding politics). That is why I want this Prez to prioritize the issues I work on --- and why I understand why others who work on other matters want the Prez to instead prioritize other issues.

Posted by: Doug B | May 1, 2021 11:50:03 AM

President Biden has "leaned into" various criminal justice issues so far. He cited multiple issues in his address. His picks, including Garland, will (and already are) "leaning in" as well.

I'm open to a variety of discourses, but one thing important for me on the level of POTUS is the broad nature of what is at stake. So, e.g., Obama having a "modest" reform in a sentencing area WHILE ALSO getting a lot other stuff (with help of Congress) accomplished (some of which, such as something like drug treatment etc. that the Affordable Care Act advanced, with criminal justice aspects) AND ALSO having burdens not in place when all three branches of the government were Republican (here two branches of Congress and executive), it should be factored in. Net, such things make me more impressed with Obama than Trump. Especially since he negatively burdened criminal justice in a variety of ways.

I spoke broadly of "criminal justice" instead of a narrower sentencing matter [which in the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog is something I'm for the nth time I'm not surprised is focused upon] since this is what YOU repeatedly cited.

I'm fine with concerns about sentencing issues but it is part of a wider whole, especially at this level, and if a fair perspective is not going to be applied, grading on curves, it is going to be harder.

Posted by: Joe | May 4, 2021 10:52:01 AM

Fair points, Joe, and if you view health care reform as an important part of criminal justice reform --- a reasonable claim --- Obama's "stock" goes up a lot more.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 4, 2021 12:55:08 PM

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