The party of lock ’em up has morphed into the party of let ’em out, as some Republicans claim they’ve outpaced President Barack Obama when it comes to efforts to overhaul what they consider a prison sentencing system that mandates too much time for nonviolent crimes.
As Obama highlighted his administration’s efforts to revamp criminal sentencing this week, including a visit Thursday to a federal prison in Oklahoma, congressional Republicans were teaming with Democrats on bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate that they hope to pass this year.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, joined the push Thursday, saying that he’d bring a bipartisan prison sentencing overhaul bill to a vote because there are people incarcerated “under what I’ll call flimsy reasons.”
For Republicans, the drive to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent, first-time and low-level offenders represents an about-face.
Long considered the party of law and order, Republicans are gradually embracing alternatives to the mandatory minimum prison sentencing that became the political rage in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to quell a crack cocaine epidemic.
“Everything in society, there’s a pendulum. There was a lawlessness that was happening in the streets. You saw it in New York, what (Republican Mayor) Rudy Giuliani had to do to make sure he started enforcing small things,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, co-chair of the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus.
“But because we’ve been able to bring back that law and order, then you can look at the cost to society and you can look at some of the ways that we can actually be more effective in our justice system,” he said.
Richard Nixon championed law and order in his successful 1968 presidential run. Today, however, Republican White House candidates Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are linked arm in arm with the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the conservative Koch brothers and liberal Democrats in advocating sweeping sentencing changes to reduce prison sentences.
We’ve over-criminalized the law and over-federalized criminal law.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah
This collection of strange political bedfellows agrees that America has a prison problem. The country accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population.
From 1980 to 2013, the number of inmates in federal prison grew from 24,000 to 215,000, an 800 percent increase, according to statistics compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Pew found that federal spending on prisons increased from less than $1 billion in 1980 to almost $7 billion in 2013 – 25 percent of Justice Department expenditures.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a tea party favorite who’s introduced a sentencing overhaul bill with Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that with one of every 100 Americans behind bars, the issue hits close to home.
“We’ve over-criminalized the law and over-federalized criminal law to the point that a lot of people know somebody, and a lot of people even know a lot of people, who have been involved one way or another in the criminal justice system,” said Lee, a former federal prosecutor. “People start to realize it’s a problem. . . . The only way to change this is through Congress.”
Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, said conservatives and liberals may come at the sentencing issue “from very different routes” but arrive “at the same destination.”
President Obama, God bless him, is behind the curve.
Van Jones, former Obama adviser
“The destination, the conclusion, is prison space should be reserved for people who are serious, violent offenders,” Gelb said.
Some Republicans, and even some Democrats, say GOP and conservative efforts on the issue have surpassed those of the White House. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., dismissed Obama’s pardon of 46 drug offenders from federal prison this week as just a publicity gambit.
Sensenbrenner and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., have sponsored a bill aimed at, among other things, reversing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders and allowing prisoners to reduce their sentences by participating in programs.
“While we in Congress are working on the SAFE Justice Act – targeted, evidence-based legislation – the president is focusing on sound bites instead of sound policy,” Sensenbrenner said earlier this week. “The American people deserve leadership, not showmanship.”
Van Jones, a former special adviser to Obama, said Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day” that “President Obama, God bless him, is behind the curve” on prison and sentencing reform.
“The politics of this have changed so much,” Jones added. “Newt Gingrich . . . said the prison system has become something conservatives can no longer support because it’s a big, failed government bureaucracy sucking up money, stealing liberty, and gets more money the worse job it does. . . . When President Obama steps to the plate on it, it changes the entire conversation, makes it bigger.”
Utah’s Lee, no fan of Obama’s, praised the president for his work on prison sentencing issues, however.
“I appreciate his work on it, I think he’s doing pretty well,” Lee said. “He had a big bipartisan, bicameral group over at the White House not too long ago, had some good conversation. He’s brought a lot of attention to the issue, and I applaud him.”