The (Still) Treacherous Politics of Criminal-Justice Reform

Political attitudes on crime and punishment have shifted, but that might not save legislation this year.

Sens. Mike Lee (right) and Chuck Grassley support criminal-justice-reform legislation.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ben Geman
Add to Briefcase
Ben Geman
Feb. 3, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

On the same day that New Hamp­shire primary voters head to the polls, GOP back­ers of crim­in­al-justice-re­form le­gis­la­tion will make their latest ef­fort in Wash­ing­ton to win trac­tion in a thorny elec­tion year.

Sens. Chuck Grass­ley and Mike Lee will host a Cap­it­ol Hill for­um Tues­day, fea­tur­ing former At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Mi­chael Muka­sey and oth­er cur­rent and former law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials, to pro­mote bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion to over­haul sen­ten­cing and pris­on policies. For now, hold­ing for­ums may be the most they can do, as com­pet­ing polit­ic­al pri­or­it­ies among dif­fer­ent GOP groups have slowed pro­gress on one of the few policy is­sues that ac­tu­ally looked ripe for com­prom­ise in 2016.

The for­um is part of an ef­fort by Re­pub­lic­an sup­port­ers of the bill to re­gain mo­mentum, even as Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell hasn’t com­mit­ted to hav­ing a floor de­bate.

Lee told Na­tion­al Journ­al this week that he’s “talk­ing con­stantly” with col­leagues to ad­vance the bill. It would scale back tough man­dat­ory-min­im­um sen­tences for cer­tain non­vi­ol­ent drug of­fenses, and en­able re­duced pris­on terms for some in­mates who take part in pro­grams to cut their risk of re­cidiv­ism.

The same day that next week’s for­um was an­nounced, Sen. Rand Paul, who broke with the GOP pack by em­phas­iz­ing crim­in­al-justice is­sues on the stump, aban­doned his flounder­ing pres­id­en­tial bid. It’s il­lus­trat­ive of how the re­form ef­fort has a long way to go, des­pite some big polit­ic­al gains.

If ad­voc­ates of over­haul­ing the na­tion’s sen­ten­cing and pris­on policies were in the fight for sym­bol­ic vic­tor­ies, it would be time for a cel­eb­ra­tion.

A ma­jor bi­par­tis­an bill cleared the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee in the fall, led in part by the second-rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an in the up­per cham­ber. Across Cap­it­ol Hill, House Speak­er Paul Ry­an says he wants ac­tion, while right-fa­cing groups, in­clud­ing Grover Nor­quist’s Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form and the Koch broth­ers, are try­ing to make the case to con­ser­vat­ive law­makers. The is­sue is get­ting lots of at­ten­tion from the Demo­crat­ic White House hope­fuls.

It’s a far cry from the 1990s, when crime rates were high­er and Pres­id­ent Clin­ton signed tough-on-crime le­gis­la­tion that he has since ex­pressed mis­giv­ings about.

“The polit­ics are very dif­fer­ent just be­cause the crime rate has dropped so much,” said polit­ics and gov­ernance ex­pert Elaine Kamar­ck, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion who served in the Clin­ton White House.

“The pres­sures that both politi­cians and voters were feel­ing in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion have just gone away,” she said.

Polling con­duc­ted for the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on by the Ben­en­son Strategy Group last year found: “In a sharp shift away from the 1980s and 1990s, when in­car­cer­a­tion was seen as a tool to re­duce crime, voters now be­lieve by two-to-one that re­du­cing the pris­on pop­u­la­tion will make com­munit­ies safer by fa­cil­it­at­ing more in­vest­ments in crime pre­ven­tion and re­hab­il­it­a­tion strategies.”

Pew Re­search Cen­ter polling con­duc­ted in early 2014 showed much high­er sup­port for states mov­ing away from man­dat­ory sen­tences for non­vi­ol­ent drug crimes com­pared to the same sur­vey 13 years earli­er. However, Re­pub­lic­ans polled were split al­most down the middle on the ques­tion.

An­oth­er poll­ster agrees that there’s a GOP di­vide. “Re­pub­lic­an voters are usu­ally pretty tough on crime, but there is also a num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an voters who say yes, this is a prob­lem and needs to get fixed,” said Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Glen Bol­ger.

He ad­ded: “It is not a huge, high-pro­file is­sue among Re­pub­lic­an primary voters. It is not a vote de­term­in­ant at this point in time. … It is hard, if you are a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate for pres­id­ent, to say, ‘I want to put a lot of my cred­ib­il­ity on the line for this is­sue.’”

In­deed, Pew’s polling sim­il­arly sug­gests that it’s not a top-tier is­sue, es­pe­cially for GOP voters.

Pew’s an­nu­al rank­ing of pub­lic pri­or­it­ies re­leased Jan. 22 in­cluded crim­in­al-justice re­form as a sep­ar­ate cat­egory this year. It finds that 44 per­cent be­lieve it should be a top pri­or­ity for the White House and Con­gress (com­pared to 75 per­cent for the eco­nomy and ter­ror­ism, and 66 per­cent for edu­ca­tion and jobs, among oth­er is­sues per­form­ing bet­ter).

“Nearly half of Demo­crats (49 per­cent) view re­form­ing the justice sys­tem as a top pri­or­ity, com­pared with 32 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans,” Pew states.

On the stump, Hil­lary Clin­ton and Bernie Sanders have dis­cussed the top­ic far more than the GOP hope­fuls.

“The polit­ics of this are very im­port­ant with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party. I don’t think they are nearly as im­port­ant with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” Kamar­ck said. “With­in the Demo­crat­ic Party it is very im­port­ant in the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity, be­cause they have suffered dis­pro­por­tion­ately from the harsh sen­ten­cing and the man­dat­ory-sen­ten­cing rules.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses this week, op­poses the Sen­ate bill, ar­guing that it would put vi­ol­ent and dan­ger­ous crim­in­als back on the streets, a char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion that spon­sors have worked to re­but. Cruz’s ob­jec­tions in­clude op­pos­i­tion to pro­vi­sions that en­able short­er sen­tences for cer­tain gun-pos­ses­sion of­fenses.

Sen­at­ors in­clud­ing Jeff Ses­sions and Tom Cot­ton are also work­ing against the bill, while back­ers in­clude Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley and John Cornyn, the ma­jor­ity whip.

Mc­Con­nell said this week that Cruz’s po­s­i­tion was not af­fect­ing the bill’s fate, not­ing, “The pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates are not go­ing to dic­tate the agenda in the Sen­ate.” He said there’s been no de­cision about wheth­er the bill will come to the floor.

“What I’ve said to my con­fer­ence is we all need to come up to speed on this. So what we’re go­ing to do in the com­ing days and weeks is to get every­body in our con­fer­ence fully en­gaged and up to speed on the vari­ous as­pects of it,” Mc­Con­nell told re­port­ers in the Cap­it­ol on Tues­day.

Sev­er­al GOP sen­at­ors fa­cing tough reelec­tion battles, such as Ron John­son and Kelly Ayotte, have not taken a po­s­i­tion on the bill.

What We're Following See More »
AT HEART OF FEDERAL RACKETEERING LAWSUIT
A.T.F. Agents Filled Secret Coffers
56 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

Agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives " used a web of shadowy cigarette sales to funnel tens of millions of dollars into a secret bank account," according to a federal racketeering lawsuit filed by a group of tobacco farmers who claim they were "swindled out of $24 million." The agents allegedly used shipments of snack food disguised as tobacco. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating the matter, though as of now it is unclear how widespread the practice was or if it is still ongoing.

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Many Signatures Has the Petition for Trump’s Tax Returns Received?
1 hours ago
THE ANSWER

More than 1 million, setting a record. More than 100,000 signatures triggers an official White House response.

Source:
TIED TO RUSSIA INVESTIGATION
Sen. Collins Open to Subpoena of Trump’s Tax Returns
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

Sen. Susan Collins, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, "said on Wednesday she's open to using a subpoena to investigate President Donald Trump's tax returns for potential connections to Russia." She said the committee is also open to subpoenaing Trump himself. "This is a counter-intelligence operation in many ways," she said of Russia's interference. "That's what our committee specializes in. We are used to probing in depth in this area."

Source:
NPR ALSO LAUNCHES ETHICS WATCH
Obama Staffers Launch Group to Monitor Trump Ethics
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"Top lawyers who helped the Obama White House craft and hold to rules of conduct believe President Donald Trump and his staff will break ethics norms meant to guard against politicization of the government — and they’ve formed a new group to prepare, and fight. United to Protect Democracy, which draws its name from a line in President Barack Obama’s farewell address that urged his supporters to pick up where he was leaving off, has already raised a $1.5 million operating budget, hired five staffers and has plans to double that in the coming months." Meanwhile, NPR has launched a "Trump Ethics Monitor" to track the resolution of ten ethics-related promises that the president has made.

Source:
DOESN’T WISH TO JOIN TRUMP
Christie Turned Down Labor Secretary
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Over a meatloaf lunch at the White House last week, Donald Trump offered the job of Labor secretary to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a longtime loyalist. Christie promptly turned down the offer, once again signaling that he has no desire to move to Washington, D.C. to join the Trump administration. The job ended up going to Alexander Acosta, who is expected to sail through the Senate confirmation process.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login