Paul Ryan

A Serious Anti-Poverty Agenda Has to Include Criminal Justice Reform

Civil society vs. the law


For the last year or so, Rep. Paul Ryan has been on a "listening tour" of the country's low-income neighborhoods. Ryan's legion of liberal critics has accused the Wisconsin Republican of disingenuousness, claiming that there's no way he can square his stated interest in improving the lives of the poor with his commitment to cutting federal spending. But there is one rather obvious set of reforms that would let him do both, reforms that liberals in theory should support. In an interview with The Daily Beast last week, Ryan brought them up:

Hello, inner-city Seattle. I'm listening.
U.S. House of Representatives

I asked the representative from Janesville, Wisconsin, if he could reflect on a previously held ideological view that had changed over the course of his learning tour.

Without hesitation, Ryan delved into the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines…."I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges. I think there's an appreciation that that approach has some collateral damage—that that approach is missing in many ways…I think there is a new appreciation that we need to give judges more discretion in these areas."

Specifically, Ryan hailed the bipartisan work of Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) to dramatically overhaul the federal sentencing guideline structure now in place. Dubbed the "Smarter Sentencing Act," the legislation, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this year, would cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for certain drug offenses. It also would reduce crack cocaine penalties retroactive to 2010 and expand the discretion of federal judges to sentence defendants in certain cases to less time in jail than mandatory minimum guidelines permit.

Do-it-yourself criminal justice reform.
Warner Bros.

Those only scratch the surface of the necessary changes, but they're steps in the right direction, and it's good to see them get an endorsement from Ryan (whose record on civil liberties hasn't been very good in the past). If, as he says, Ryan's alternative to the traditional welfare state is to strengthen civil society, then he should be trying to root out the institutions that tear civil society apart. And the most corrosive of those are surely the prison-first crime policies that have given the U.S. the world's highest incarceration rates, ripping young people out of their families and communities and exiling them to an archipelago of cages. (See also: policies that confuse school discipline with crime control, policies that confuse cops with late-night social workers, etc.) 

Speaking of civil society and the law: Ryan's tour seems mostly to have taken him to civil society's more presentable faces—violence-free zones, church-based drug rehab programs, and so on. All well and good, but it's important to realize that a great deal of the community-based problem-solving and local mutual aid that's out there isn't likely to attract a high-profile visitor, because it operates in a legal grey zone—or, in some cases, outright breaks the law. Whether it's self-organized day care that violates licensing or zoning rules, organizations that ignore ordinances against feeding the homeless, or urban homesteaders with less-than-certain title to the abandoned buildings they're transforming into homes or the abandoned lots they're transforming into gardens, these efforts could stand a little legal relief. The laws that need to be cleared away for such projects to flourish aren't always imposed on the federal level, so a congressman's ability to help them may be limited. But if you want your poverty-fighting agenda to include all the valuable institutions of civil society, as opposed to the most camera-ready, these have to be part of the picture.

NEXT: Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Police Who Used Deadly Force to End High-Speed Car Chase

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. phatdaddy 3 days ago
    if ryan even pretends concern for the less fortunate he’ll be labeled a lefty by ultra cons in his own party and primary’d by the baggers………a true conservative cannot show mercy……’s a sign of weakness……..keep a foot on the throats of the indigent until full submission is achieved and they’re happy to be slaves……’s been the goal of the 1%ers and the republicans since the days of troy and sparta

    MarcTakaha 5 days ago
    I believe Paul Aryan ? I mean “Ryan” means well, just as Justice Roberts tries to, but they have both demonstrated time and time again that they apparently have unconscious racial and class biases. The common message consistently transmitted through their respective budget proposals and SCOTUS rulings is that a minority segment of our “democracy” has more value than the much larger majority.

    Hubris4All 5 days ago
    This article is complete bull.

    Paul Ryan’s agenda is simple: demonize the poor, alienating them from the voting block. The Dems lose a chunk of their support, more GOP frauds are voted to Congress, and the oil companies can do what they want.

    That’s his plan.

    echo_chamber_orchestra 5 days ago

    Paul Ryan’s war on poverty is clear:

    end social security
    end universal health care
    end food stamps
    and let the those who cannot keep up die away

    end of war…

    The last one wins for his name.

    1. I kind of liked the Troy and Sparta reference. The GOP really kicked some ass back then.

    2. Democrats good, Republicans baaaaaadddddddd!!!

    3. demonize the poor, alienating them from the voting block

      What does that even mean?

      1. I was wondering the same thing.

        Internet comments are the best argument against democracy since Clay Aiken.

    4. And the “More Honest than I Intended to Be” award goes to ….

    5. Those people really need to spend some time here reading Palin’s Buttplug posts. If they did, they’d know that people on food stamps vote “overwhelmingly” Republican. So even if it’s true that Ryan wants to end food stamps, all he’s doing is hurting his own party’s base.

      1. Agreed. Shablagoo!

      2. Actually at one time support for the food stamp program (albeit not particularly from people actually getting it) may have come largely from Republicans, because that’s the way agricultural districts tended to vote, and the program was a type of agriculture price support. However, the impact of food stamps these days on prices at the farm is negligible, since they don’t increase significantly the total quantity demanded of foodstuffs, and nearly all foodstuffs either qualify for food stamp payment or are ingredients of foods that do, so it’s not like there’s even a shift in quantities demanded favoring certain commodities.

  2. So Ryan’s giving up on getting support from the law & order crowd and the prison/treatment industries? We’ll just see about that.

  3. But what about all of those federal prison guards???? And the contractors who build the prisons??? What will they do if the prison population goes down?

    1. They’ll just have to move to California where they rule the House.

  4. Without hesitation, Ryan delved into the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines

    Here’s an idea- what if we stopped criminalizing every single fucking human activity? Why don’t you get up during the floor debate and say, “That’s a stupid idea. We shouldn’t do that.”?

    1. And give up the opportunity to tell you what to do and how? And all that power? Nope, not going to happen.

    2. Here’s an idea- what if we stopped criminalizing every single fucking human activity?

      No can do. As the state expands, it increasingly feels as if its losing control. As the state flails about trying to maintain control, it criminalizes and brutalizes everyone.

      If the state doesn’t shrink, it will simply get worse. Smart money’s on the latter.

  5. Justice? There is no “justice” – there’s….just us….


      1. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson FTW!

  6. Shouldn’t a serious anti-poverty agenda include some kind of measuring stick for effectiveness at actually ending poverty?

    1. No, I’m pretty sure a “serious anti-poverty agenda” is measured by your feelings.
      How are you feeling?

      1. It’s measured by how much money is apportioned.

        Spoiler: every notch on the measuring stick says, “Not Enough.”

    2. The problem is that the people in charge of government end poverty programs are the ones who are in charge of the poverty measuring stick. By changing the stick they can change the amount of poverty to whatever supports their program.

      1. Food insecurity.

        1. I did not eat breakfast today,I am poor.

  7. As you say, all well and good, but considering criminal justice reform to be an element of anti-poverty reform, as much as it makes sense to us, would be a big mistake. Implying that the poor are disproportionately criminal, even if that’s true, will be resented by many of those who want to help the poor, including of course the poor themselves. You’d be sabotaging the coalition you’re trying to build.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.