Finally, thirty years since the war on drugs was made worse during the 1990s, more Republicans are coming around on criminal justice reform. Yesterday, Rep. Paul Ryan included two criminal justice reform bills by Democrat Bobby Scott in his long-awaited and much discussed poverty plan. Both pieces have enjoyed Republican support in the House.
“I am pleased that Chairman Ryan has specifically endorsed the Smarter Sentencing Act, which I have introduced with Republican Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho. Our bill reduces the harm of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses by granting discretion to federal judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum,” Scott wrote in a statement on Ryan’s plan.
Ryan’s poverty plan also endorses the Public Safety Enhancement Act, which focuses on reducing recidivism. That legislation teams Scott up with Republican Jason Chaffetz. The Ryan Poverty plan is another example of the growing bi-partisan trend on criminal justice reform policy.
Liberal Senate Judiciary Chair Pat Leahy and Sen. Paul introduced identical legislation pushed by Rep. Scott for over five years — the Justice Safety Valve Act. That legislation gives judges the power to sentence drug offenders under mandatory minimum penalties.
But there have been bumps in the road as people hang on to failed policy.
Though mandatory minimums have long been identified as the leading reason the U.S. leads the world in incarceration, some Democrats have yet to join the growing number of Republicans in the “smart on crime” rollback.
Last week DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz joined Republican Lamar Smith in moving a bill on identty theft through the House Judiciary Committee. The bill included two mandatory minimum penalties. Despite an effort by Conyers and Scott to remove the mandatory minimums the bill was reported out of committee. Additionally, the DNC Chair is not a sponsor on the Justice Safety Valve Act.
Meanwhile, Republican Raul Labrador voted in favor of the Scott amendment along with Conyers and other Democrats to remove the mandatory minimum penalties. Labrador’s vote was similar to a vote taken by Republican Tom Massie who voted against a bill on sex trafficking that contained a new mandatory minimum penalty.
Last Friday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission went further than many expected on sentencing reform. The Commission voted unanimously to apply full retroactivity for 46,000 people in federal prison for drug related offenses — a fourth of federal prisoner.
Last week, Democrat Rep. Chaka Fattah teamed up with Republican Frank Wolf to introduce the House version of the REDEEM Act, justice reform legislation offered by Kentucky’s Tea Party Sen. Paul and Democrat Cory Booker.
The REDEEM Act allows juvenile records to be sealed or expunged for crimes before age 15, incentivize states to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 years old and lifts the ban on SNAP and TANF benefits for low-level drug offenders.
If the trend of bi-partisanship on justice reform continues, the policy shift will soon be seen in criminal justice stats. Currently the U.S. has over 2 million people in “the system.” That number should soon change.