Today House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled proposals aimed at "Expanding Opportunity in America" that include "commonsense criminal-justice reform." Ryan, who is expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination, endorsed the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would allow currently incarcerated crack offenders to seek sentence reductions based on new penalties approved by Congress in 2010. The bill also would cut the mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses in half while loosening the criteria for the "safety valve" that allows low-level, nonviolent offenders to avoid mandatory minimums. "All we're saying is, [judges] don't have to give the maximum sentence every time," Ryan said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. "There's no reason to lock someone up any longer than necessary."
Under current law, Ryan notes in the paper outlining his proposals, "a single gram of crack cocaine could be all that separates a convict from a less-than-five-year sentence and a 40-year sentence. Rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders, like these, may add to an already over-crowded prison system without appreciably enhancing public safety."
Ryan also endorsed the Public Safety Enhancement Act, which would let nonviolent offenders leave prison early if they complete evidence-based reintegration programs. "Here's the point," he said in his speech. "Nonviolent, low-risk offenders—don't lock them up and throw away the key. Get them in counseling; get them in job training; help them rejoin and contribute to our society."
Ryan told The Washington Post that anti-poverty activist Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, helped him see the light on sentencing reform. "I changed my mind on sentencing and prison reform," he said. "It just became clear to me that there are better ways for dealing with nonviolent criminals, [for] helping them get back on their feet, to pay their debt to society, and lead productive lives and be rehabilitated, than the current system we have today."
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) welcomed Ryan's conversion. "Congressman Ryan is way ahead of the curve in recognizing the link between incarceration and generational poverty," said Molly Gill, FAMM's legislative liaison. "The reforms he endorsed today have helped dozens of states save money, restore families and communities, and keep crime rates low." She added: "At a time when the need for smarter sentencing practices is now universally accepted. It's no longer strange when Republicans and Democrats work together on this issue. It's strange when they don't."
I'm not sure we can credit Ryan with being "way ahead of the curve" if he is backing sentencing reform "at a time when the need for smarter sentencing practices is now universally accepted." Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah)—all of whom have introduced reform bills—surely deserve more credit for sticking their necks out on this issue. Still, it is encouraging that Ryan has joined them, which should boost the prospects of passing a bill in the House. "Every serious GOP candidate for 2016 supports sentencing reform," former Reason writer Mike Riggs, now FAMM's communications director, observes on Twitter. "When are we going to learn where likely Democratic candidates stand?"