Boehner Endorses Sentencing Reform; Bill Clinton Apologizes for His Role in Mass Incarceration

The SAFE Justice Act gets a boost from the House speaker.


Washington Post video

Yesterday House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed with President Obama that Congress should address overincarceration:

I've long believed that there needs to be reform of the criminal justice system….

We've got a lot of people in prison, frankly, who really, in my view, really don't need to be there. It's expensive to house prisoners. Sometimes, frankly, some of these people are there for what I'll call flimsy reasons.

Boehner specifically expressed support for the SAFE Justice Act, which would make the shorter crack sentences enacted in 2010 retroactive, eliminate federal penalties for simple possession of drugs in jurisdictions subject to state law, reserve mandatory minimum sentences for high-level drug traffickers, clarify that gun-related mandatory minimums can run consecutively only "when the offender is a true recidivist," give judges more discretion in sentencing people based on their responses to "reverse stings," encourage more use of diversion and probation, and offer prisoners time reductions in exchange for their participation in job training and other programs aimed at reducing recidivism. That's a pretty impressive package of reforms, and I have to say I'm surprised to hear that Boehner is on board.

"John Boehner's support for justice reform shows that momentum is growing in Congress," says FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon. "Not only that, but it's one of the few issues that transcends party lines and we can actually get something done. For too long, lawmakers have enacted big-government mandates that leave us with a skyrocketing prison population, high costs, and broken families. The status quo is unsustainable."

Another sign of the times: While attending the NAACP convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton apologized for a law he used to brag about: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994—or, as Vice President Joe Biden proudly calls it, "the 1994 Biden Crime Bill." Among other things, that bill made drug sentences harsher, subsidized a nationwide prison-building boom, and expanded the application of the federal death penalty. "I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it," Clinton said on Wednesday. "In that bill, there were longer sentences, and most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend. And that was overdone; we were wrong about that."

That mea culpa is notably stronger than the one Clinton offered in his preface to a collection of essays on criminal justice reform that the Brennan Center published last spring:

By 1994, violent crime had tripled in years. Our communities were under assault. We acted to address a genuine national crisis. But much has changed since then. It's time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn't, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.

So many of these laws worked well, especially those that put more police on the streets. But too many laws were overly broad instead of appropriately tailored.

Clinton's wife—who, as you may have heard, is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination—has been similarly inclined to make excuses for the draconian penalties she and her husband used to support, although she did concede in 2008 that those policies contributed to "an unacceptable increase in incarceration." Esquire's Charles Pierce suggests that the former president is "clearing his triangulations out of the way so that Hillary Rodham Clinton has a clearer road through the new politics of her party." 

NEXT: Who Would Make Cut if First GOP Candidate Debate Was Held Today?

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  1. I’ve long believed that there needs to be reform of the criminal justice system….

    Bullshit, John.

    (That’s not to say that I don’t welcome criminal justice reform becoming the cause du jour for our lords and masters.)

    1. NO TEARS = NO DICE.

  2. I can’t help but wonder…what it if turns out that massive incarceration rates are what caused this long drop in crime? What if a statistically significant portion of the population are going to commit aggression against others regardless of what you do, for no other reason than because they’re bastards, and the only reason things got better is because they all got put in jail for 20+ years on petty offenses (like Al Capone for income tax type shit)?

    Boy would there be egg on my face.

      1. I can’t watch that here at work, you’ll have to remind me to look at it later tonight.

        1. It’s Dwight Shrute saying that it’s better to lock up 1000 innocent men than let a guilty man roam free.

          1. Well, you can’t argue that we wouldn’t have lower crime rates.

            I bet street-crime is practically non-existent in North Korea. You can walk through their version of Central Park at midnight, with nary a worry. Totally worth it.

            1. I bet you can score some meth too without a hassle. SIGN ME UP!

              1. What about deep-dish pizza, though?

                1. Pot is legal in North Korea, too.

    1. And your proof that it hasn’t?

  3. Sentencing reforms, check. I don’t suppose we can look at mass decriminalization now?

  4. We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, who really, in my view, really don’t need to be there. It’s expensive to house prisoners. Sometimes, frankly, some of these people are there for what I’ll call flimsy reasons.

    Boehner speaking frankly on an issue doesn’t bode well for its chances in Congress.

    1. It’s the tie, correct?

      I have it on good authority that one should never wear an article of clothing or fashion accessory the same color as one’s fleshtone.

      1. I thought he ripped his shirt open for some reason.

        1. Perhaps he was trying to invoke imagery from the older Superman movies, although I’m not sure “SuperBoehner” is the image he would have actually intended.

          /intentionally cues Sugarfree

  5. Obama’s SOP when dealing with major initiatives with potentially broad bipartisan support throughout his presidency is to talk a good game when ideas are being bandied about and completely refuse to compromise when it’s time to negotiate. He digs in and eventually proposes policies so at odds with Republicans’ interest that the entire endeavor falls apart. No changes are made, and Obama blames the whole thing on the GOP’s inability to see that he’s completely right.

    I fully expect prison reform to play out in such a manner.

    1. I think he’s specifically endorsed bipartisan legislation that’s pending in Congress and is using his bully pulpit to help push it through.

      While I disagree with him on many things, it’s hard for me to find a way to criticize what he’s doing here.

    2. absolutely “compromising” on something like free community college would mean abandoning some core ideas (not that republicans are unwilling to do that ever). just floating some idea shouldnt shift the whole debate

  6. Why do they call these people leaders when all they do is follow at the end of the line, picking pockets?

    1. Leading from behind.

      It’s one of the classes required for a Masters’ in Public Administration.

      1. There’s no leading going on at all. Just smoke, mirrors, theft, deception, and spin.

  7. Why is this issue being talked about now ? I seem to recall there was some politician, a Senator I believe, who brought this up a while ago. He may even be running for President.

    1. Now he is trying to get closer to the front of the line.

  8. I don’t quite see why Boehner’s support for prison reform is any more surprising than support from Democrats or African-Americans. The war on drugs has either been led by or had widespread support by Democrats since its inception. Harry J. Anslinger made his racist testimony regarding marijuana in 1937, representing the Democratic Administration’s position to a Democrat-controlled Congress. Sure Nixon launched the WoD, but he did it in consultation with African-American leaders who have generally supported the WoD until very recently. NPR has a great timeline of African-American support for the war on drugs — including cannabis and crack cocaine sentencing enhancements — over the past 40 years.…..-on-drugs/

    The implications in some quarters that the WoD (particularly the crack cocaine sentencing enhancements) is some sort of white GOP racist plot is completely ahistorical. The WoD has been a bipartisan project of fools who believe that draconian laws and harsh punishments for exercising individual liberty can solve social problems.

    1. You know who else said racist things in the 30’s?

      1. Tom Yawkey?

    2. Nixon was brought up a Quaker, and as a Pacifist…..Today he would be decried as a RINO.

  9. How do you know when a politician is lying ?

    His/her lips are moving.

    Regards, onebornfree
    The Freedom Network :

  10. So Rand Paul campaigns on the idea of criminal justice reform and when it becomes popular enough, other politicians jump on the bandwagon?

    While I am glad to see this subject being taken seriously by more and more people, it just looks like very nice timing during an election campaign.

    Something along the lines of… “See, you don’t have to vote for Paul, the problem is already solved. Be sure to vote for the person with a D next to the name.”

    On the other side of this, politicians are supposed to be representatives of us peasants. So it is nice that they are actually doing something here that is representative of many American’s sentiments on the issue.

    1. So Rand Paul campaigns on the idea of criminal justice reform and when it becomes popular enough, other politicians jump on the bandwagon?

      John Boehner is also planning on getting a perm.

      1. I think he should take it one step further and get a jerry curl. Cant have that libertarian leaning motherfucker out there setting his own trends with an R next to his name.

        John needs to one up that shit!

    2. Welcome to American Politics, and the reality of Third Parties.

  11. Let’s get one thing clear: they’re only endorsing about TALKING about reform. They have not commitment to follow-through whatsoever.

  12. All these idiots need to do is end the drug war.

    Is that so fucking hard?

    Esp for a war that is un Constitutional

    1. It is so fucking hard when Mr. and Mrs. Average American have been told that drugs exert some kind of other-worldly control over the weak-mined, that they cannot be placed into the realm of human self control.
      Only draconian laws will stop people from using drugs and, contrary to actual reality, they will not vote for someone who advocates their legalization.

  13. Trying to ensure a softer landing for Members of Congress.

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