Republicans Try to Torpedo Sentencing Reform

Need another reason to resent the GOP-run Congress? Try Tom Cotton (and Ted Cruz).


They keep coming. ||| Bill Kristol's Twitter feed
Bill Kristol's Twitter feed

It's not enough that they're blowing the long-term debt and deficit sky high (by ditching sequestration cuts, boosting spending, cramming unseemlies into omnibuses, and just waving away the debt ceiling like an irksome gnat), but now the Republicans who control both houses of Congress are gathering forces to undermine one of their last chances to not be terrible: criminal justice reform.

As Anthony Fisher wrote about this morning, reform is a thing that's happening around the country as we speak. But the long-promised payout of these efforts, a bipartisan mandatory minimum rollback designed for the legacy-seeking pen of President Barack Obama, is being threatened by surveillance-loving interventionist nightmare Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Reports Politico:

GOP tensions over a bill that would effectively loosen some mandatory minimum sentences spilled over during a party lunch last week, when Cotton (R-Ark.), the outspoken Senate freshman, lobbied his colleagues heavily against the legislation, according to people familiar with the closed-door conversation. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall with bipartisan support.

"It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons," Cotton said later in an interview with POLITICO. "I think it's no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question … [but] I don't think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do." […]

Conservatives opposing the legislation are coalescing around Cotton's view — despite strong pushback from bill supporters — that the measure could lead to the early release of people convicted and imprisoned for violent crimes. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), once a supporter of easing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, has also made this argument.

Definitely the latter, in this case. ||| Reason

The turnabout ju-jitsu from Ted Cruz, who once could be accurately described as a criminal justice reformer, is especially galling. A new Atlantic piece describes how the Texas Tea Partier plunged the knife into the ribs of his best friend in the Senate, bill sponsor Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah):

When Lee brought up his bill in the committee hearing, he wasn't sure if he'd have Cruz's support. But he certainly didn't anticipate what came next.

Cruz attacked the bill as dangerous and politically poisonous. He said it would lead to more than 7,000 federal prisoners let out on the street. "I for one, at a time when police officers across this country are under assault right now, being vilified right now, when we're seeing violent crime spiking in our cities across the country, I think it would be a serious mistake for the Senate to pass legislation providing for 7,082 criminals to be released early," he said. The bill, he claimed, "could result in more violent criminals being let out on the streets, and potentially more lives being lost."

Cruz went on to warn his fellow senators that if they voted for the bill, they would imperil their careers. "We know to an absolute certainty that an unfortunately high percentage of those offenders will go and commit subsequent crimes," he said. "And every one of us who votes to release violent criminals from prison prior to the expiration of their sentence can fully expect to be held accountable by our constituents." Essentially, Cruz was saying that the legislation would let dangerous people out of prison, they would commit more crimes, and the senators would be subject to Willie Horton-style attack ads.

Lee, who was sitting right next to Cruz, could not believe what he was hearing. The bill, he responded, wouldn't actually release any violent criminals from prison, and its sentence reduction for gun crimes was to reduce the minimum for felons caught with guns or ammunition from 15 years to 10 years—a provision that had once sent a man to prison for 15 years when he picked up a stray bullet in order to clean a carpet. "It is simply incorrect to say that this suddenly releases a bunch of violent criminals. It is tougher on violent offenders," Lee sputtered. "That statement is inaccurate…. We're not letting out violent offenders. That is false."

When I interviewed the reform-supporting Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) two weeks ago about potential obstacles to the legislation, he said the biggest impediments were coming from his own team:

Never forget! ||| Fox Business Network
Fox Business Network

Massie: Um, you know, it's really up to our leadership here in Congress. And—

Q: Uh-oh.

Massie: Yeah I know (laughs). Sometimes it's like pushing a string uphill, in terms of trying to get bills through committee, you know they die in committee, or trying to get them to the floor for a vote. If the leadership doesn't want it, then it doesn't happen. And frankly there's really nobody on K Street, there's no moneyed interests up here putting money in the pockets of congressman's campaigns that's pushing this issue.

Now ironically the Koch brothers have gotten involved as an asset in this battle for repealing mandatory minimums, and they've teamed up with some of the left-leaning groups. And so there is a little push. But there's, you know, as far as moneyed interests on Wall Street being interested in it, they're just not. And so those folks are displacing a lot of the floor time here. It's going to be hard to get it to the president.

So what can reformers hope for? Either that Cruz changes his mind (fat chance), or that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gets off the mat in Iowa, and retains a puncher's chance at the nomination. More Massie:

I think the prospects are good if this becomes part of the presidential debate. If you have all the presidential candidates supporting [reforming] mandatory minimums, or at least the Republican that wins the nomination and the Democrat that wins the nomination, then there's a good chance that this issue stays fresh and in the public debate. And then when they are sworn into office, presumably there's a mandate[.]

Reason on sentencing reform here.