Black caucus chairman, conservative leader team up for justice reform

Rep. Mark Walker from North Carolina, chair of the Republican Study Committee, addresses Arthur C. Brooks while discussing "Conservatism in the 115th Congress" at the American Enterprise Institute Auditorium in Washington.
Rep. Mark Walker from North Carolina, chair of the Republican Study Committee, addresses Arthur C. Brooks while discussing "Conservatism in the 115th Congress" at the American Enterprise Institute Auditorium in Washington. McClatchy

Rep. Mark Walker, a conservative Republican, wants the GOP-controlled Congress to move on long-stalled efforts to revamp the nation’s criminal justice system next year — and he's enlisted a seemingly unlikely ally: The head of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Walker, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, is teaming with Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La.

Walker leads the largest group of conservatives in the House of Representatives, 157 Republicans, including 17 House committee chairs.

Richmond steers a group of 49 African-American lawmakers — 48 Democrats, one Republican (Mia Love of Utah) and two Democratic senators.

Richmond and Walker agree the current criminal justice system negatively impacts families, particularly in communities of color, costs the federal government too much money, and does little to reduce the rate of recidivism. The United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population.

“We want something that can really impact the legislative system like we haven’t seen in many years,” Walker told McClatchy. “We felt that if the chairmen of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Republican Study Committee can come together on something, it may create enough attention to say ‘Okay, maybe this is bigger than the political lingo that you hear out of D.C. every week.’”

The two lawmakers, who met for the first time last week, are taking small steps initially: They’re working on a criminal justice op/ed piece that they hope to have published in early December.

“Ultimately, our teams will hopefully work together, that we can genuinely have a piece of legislation, a bill that can come out of the House,” Walker said. “There’s probably going to be tweaking, adjusting, massaging as far as things we’re both comfortable with.”

Senators re-introduced a 2015 sentencing overhaul and corrections bill last month. Walker said he and Richmond hope to produce a House bill “that doesn’t have mandatory (sentencing) language that we’ve seen in the past, especially when it comes to federal sentences.”

That would be important to him and Richmond, Walker said, adding, “I think there’s a way we can do this.”

Walker and Richmond seem like a political odd couple at first glance, but the two have histories of dealing with lawmakers in the opposite party.

Walker has worked closely with Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., particularly on issues concerning that nation’s historically black colleges and universities. North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, the nation’s largest HBCU, is in Walker’s district.

Richmond has worked with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., on flood insurance bills and with former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah on a measure to change solitary confinement practices in prisons and jails.

The word in Washington for some time has been that a criminal justice overhaul was almost a sure thing.

After all, Republicans and conservatives, from Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas to libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and the Koch Brothers, largely agreed with liberal Democrats, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union on the need for sweeping changes.

But electoral politics got in the way on Capitol Hill. The Senate was unable to move the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which called for reduced prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, gave judges more discretion with lower-level drug crimes and provided inmates early release opportunities by allowing them to participate in rehabilitation programs.

The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee approved 11 criminal justice-related bills in the last Congress, but none reached the House floor for a vote.

Momentum stalled because of 2016 election politics, with presidential candidates such as Ted Cruz, R-Texas, arguing that reducing prison sentences would let dangerous criminals loose.

Liberals balked at demands by some conservatives that an overhaul include changes in a so-called “mens rea” provision regarding criminal intent. Liberals also complained the proposed changes would benefit white collar criminals.

“There was a sense that there were few Republicans who wanted to give President Obama a legacy item — and that was a legacy item,” Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative FreedomWorks, said of the attempt to change the criminal justice system. “I disagreed with members of Congress who framed it as legacy item…but I understand why they did it.”

Pye and others said criminal justice became a back-burner issue in 2017, a victim of the GOP drive to reshape the nation's tax laws, end the affordable care act and other priorities.

The White House has sent mixed signals on criminal justice. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have publicly taken hardline law and order stances while Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, have huddled with congressional criminal justice overhaul advocates from both parties.

Sessions told House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., last week that he would work with the committee to identify and craft responsible changes to the system. Sessions’ vow came after he told the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association in October that “I'm afraid we don't have a sentencing problem; we have a crime problem.”

“If we want to bring down our prison population then we should bring down crime,” Sessions added.

The United States had 1,526,800 prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correction authorities in 2015, its smallest population since 2005 when 1,525,900 were behind bars, according to a December 2016 Justice Department report.

“Americans voted for President Trump’s brand of law and order and rejected the soft on crime policies that made it harder to prosecute drug traffickers and put dangerous criminals back on the street where our law enforcement officers face deadly risks every day,” said Ian Prior, a Justice Department spokesman. “The Department of Justice implores Congress to focus on stemming the rise in crime and solving this unprecedented drug crisis.”

Still, Walker said political priorities and mixed messages aren’t excuses for not revamping the system in 2017, nor should they be next year.

“I have to remind of few of us from time to time that we Republicans are in charge right now, we’ve got both houses,” Walker said. “We do have to get to a place where these (bills) are starting to land and not just become pieces of good legislation that we re-introduce every two years…I think having an extra layer of support, we’ll call it, might be enough to continue this process to the floor.”

Kate Irby of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas