Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the most conservative members of the House Republican conference, has helped engineer a bill that would overhaul decades-old federal sentencing guidelines, giving judges more leeway and offering criminals the hope of less time in prison.
It would seem an unusual move for Labrador, an Idaho Republican whose membership in the Freedom Caucus has put him at the center of efforts to oust Speaker John Boehner and shake up the House of Representatives’ leadership.
But Labrador says criminal justice issues have been a top priority since his election to the House in 2010.
After a career as an attorney at a firm that specialized in immigration and criminal defense, Labrador said, he saw the consequences of judges being stripped of flexibility and forced to comply with mandatory minimum sentences.
“It was putting people in prison for long periods of time. We were not rehabilitating them, we were turning them into worse criminals,” Labrador said in a recent interview.
The Sentencing Reform Act, introduced in the House this month by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., seeks to increase judges’ discretion and reduce some mandatory minimums, as does its partner bill in the Senate. Parts of the current House bill reflect issues addressed in Labrador’s 2013 legislation, reintroduced this past February, that aimed to reduce mandatory minimums by half.
It was putting people in prison for long periods of time. We were not rehabilitating them, we were turning them into worse criminals.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho
“I thought our bill was better, but I think this bill is good,” Labrador said. “It’s something that gets us a step closer to reforming our entire criminal justice system. It’s definitely a huge achievement.”
Other provisions in the House bill include reducing mandatory minimums for some drug offenses, and in certain cases retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, to combat racial disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine offenses.
As a conservative Republican, Labrador said, he bases his argument for changes in sentencing on incarceration’s cost to communities. Inmates with long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes are soaking up bad influences in prison instead of being in school or the workforce, he said.
“The cost to society, the cost to the treasury and the cost to lives has been quite large,” Labrador said. “I think conservatives understand that we need to look at those issues.”
Some punishments in the House bill would be tougher, though. The statutory maximum sentence for felons possessing firearms would increase, and sentencing would be increased for trafficking fentanyl, a drug used to “cut” heroin.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, a co-sponsor of the bill along with Labrador, called his work on the issue “a very important statement” that conservatives and liberals can work together.
“He makes the point that he is conservative, very conservative, but he also was a defense lawyer and he really believes on the criminal justice side in the values of America, which is due process and the right for a second chance, which is what our sentencing bill is all about,” Jackson Lee said.
The real impact is that it will shift the discretion for sentencing from prosecutors back to judges.
Candace McCoy, John Jay College Doctoral Program in Criminal Justice
Changing mandatory minimums wouldn’t necessarily lower sentencing severity, but it would weaken prosecutors’ ability to force guilty pleas, said Candace McCoy, a professor at the John Jay College Doctoral Program in Criminal Justice.
“For courts, it’s huge,” said McCoy. “The real impact is that it will shift the discretion for sentencing from prosecutors back to judges.”
Offenders often take offers by prosecutors to plead guilty to lesser crimes in order to avoid mandatory minimums, she said. Giving judges leeway would allow more people the opportunity to defend themselves.
In September 2014, more than half of the federal prison population was serving time for drug offenses, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. Six percent of all black males ages 30 to 39 were in prison in 2014, compared with 2 percent of Hispanic males and 1 percent of white males in the same age group.
Still, the vast majority of inmates are in state and local jails, not federal prisons. In 2014, federal prisons held 210,567 inmates, and state jails held 1,350,958, according to the same report.
“Mass incarceration can’t be ended by Congress, even if Congress released everyone in federal prisons tomorrow,” said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group. “What Congress can do is impact thousands of lives.”
Importantly, Haile said, the bipartisanship shown in Congress’ effort to change sentencing laws sends a message to state lawmakers that they can support sentencing reform without being attacked as being soft on crime.
“Here is a bipartisan coalition all agreeing that we’ve gone too far in terms of harsh sentencing,” Haile said. “That could have an effect at state levels.”
The House bill is in committee now, but lawmakers anticipate it will move forward. The Senate version, meanwhile, passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Oct. 26 and now goes to the floor for a full vote. It’s unclear whether the legislation in either chamber has the support to move forward into law.
Still, Labrador said he’s optimistic.
“I’m very hopeful with the bipartisan and bicameral support it has now, it’s going to get to the president’s desk,” Labrador said.