Politics & Government

Ted Poe under pressure as conservatives debate prison reform

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Criminal Justice Reform

Follow all of our coverage of Washington’s plan to overhaul the federal criminal justice system, based on reforms Texas, Kentucky and Georgia implemented at the state level.

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Congress’s plan to overhaul the federal prison system is drawing inspiration from Texas – where conservatives say prison reforms have saved taxpayers big money.

But the effort will pit some of Texas’s law-and-order conservatives against powerful fiscal hawks who have embraced prison reform for its potential savings.

Caught in the middle is Rep. Ted Poe, a conservative Texan sitting on the committee overseeing that process.

The former felony court judge and prosecutor is urging his colleagues not to cut costs by making violent offenders’ sentences more lenient.

He’s also under equal pressure from influential fiscal conservatives to adjust what’s now seen as an old-fashioned GOP take on criminal justice.

“Prisons were built for violent offenders, basically to keep certain people away from society,” Poe told the Star-Telegram. “When it comes to violent crime... I think those individuals should get as much time as the system can give them.”

Poe’s mission could be a lonely one. Known for the creative sentences he used to shame criminals as a judge, Poe hasn’t changed his hardline views on crime and punishment. His party, on the other hand, has reversed course, aligning more closely with Democrats on ths issue.

Conservatives championed tough sentencing policies for decades. Now they’re the ones driving Congress’s effort to overhaul the federal criminal justice system.

They say reducing the prison population is good fiscal policy, and holdouts in the party need to get on board.

“I wouldn’t call them ‘tough-on-crime’ Republicans, I would call them ‘1980’s lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ Republicans,” said Holly Harris, executive director of nonpartisan Justice Action Network, which works with both conservative and liberal groups that advocate for reform.

“There are fewer and fewer of them, and they’re going to become harder to find,” added Harris.

The House Judiciary Committee, a panel that includes Poe, intends to open debate on a proposal to beef up criminal rehabilitation programs, aimed at keeping criminals from returning to the system.

Some Democrats and Republicans want to go much further, changing the way prison sentences are determined in the first place.

Poe is proud of his work locking up criminals, and his staff still refers to him as “The Judge.”

He’s also a dedicated fiscal conservative — one reform advocates haven’t counted out as a potential ally for their cause.

“I’m glad that we’re reviewing our criminal justice system and prison system,” Poe said. “What Congress actually comes up with at the end of the day, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

Poe’s tough-on-crime talk draws eye rolls from some in the conservative movement, who want their party to leave that in the past.

“The next generation of leaders, like [Utah Sen.] Mike Lee, are champions on this,” said Harris, who considers herself a conservative.

Lee, 46, is pushing the Senate to move its own criminal justice reforms. The Senate’s Judiciary Committee has approved legislation, but leaders haven’t brought it to a full floor vote.

House leaders now have a chance to design their own approach, one they think might have a better chance at getting President Donald Trump’s signature.

Trump’s Justice Department is still fully committed to tough sentencing, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently advised federal prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in some drug-related crimes. But GOP leaders believe the president could be open to a bill that focuses narrowly on prison reform.

Poe, who has leukemia and will retire at the end of the year. He hasn’t ruled out some reform.

“When it comes to drug cases, theft cases, non-violent crime, that’s one issue. But when it comes to violent crime, no,” said Poe. “If you want to deal with non-violent crimes in a different way, that’s something that should be considered, maybe.”

The conservative group FreedomWorks is among those lobbying lawmakers for reforms. Jason Pye, the group’s vice president of legislative affairs, said FreedomWorks had a positive meeting with Poe about its ideas last in February.

“Arguments against reform are fading away because of the success in the states, they’ve proven that it works,” said Pye.

Texas began overhauling its own prison system in 2007, investing in rehabilitative programs such as the ones Congress will soon consider. In a decade, the state’s incarceration rate fell by about 17 percent, while the crime rate fell by more than 30 percent. Georgia and South Carolina, also Republican-led, have implemented prison reforms too.

Poe says he sees room for improvement in the federal prison system. In particular, he’s worked on legislation to change the way it deals with crimes related to sex trafficking.

That bill, co-authored with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, expanded punishment to include people who seek to buy trafficked sex workers, not just the traffickers. It also made changes to the way the system deals with people who have been trafficked, treating them as victims instead of criminals.

“We need to make room in our prison system by moving out the nonviolent people [who] can change, so that we can have plenty of room for the violent offenders who commit these dastardly crimes, like sex slavery,” said Poe.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch