Wednesday, October 7, 2015

When Civil Rights and Small Government Collide

On October 1st, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan bill, was introduced in the Senate. The primary purpose of the bill is to begin reforming our criminal justice system. Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley is one of the cosponsors, which is particularly noteworthy, since he is one of the most senior members of the Senate and also a Republican who is generally thought of as being “tough on crime.” The support from the right definitely came as a surprise to me, since I've always thought of criminal justice reform as a Democratic issue, but in fact more and more Republicans are beginning to advocate for change.
Picture by Danny Garcia

It seems that members of both the left and the right consider tough-on-crime legislation to be antithetical to their values. While progressives see this issue from a civil rights perspective, conservatives are concerned with the bloat and bureaucracy of the criminal system, a viewpoint that has stemmed from libertarian ideology and is slowly percolating through the Republican party. There are other reasons for Republicans to back criminal justice reform besides creating a smaller government, and junior Senator Mike Lee, a cosponsor on the Senate bill, has outlined some of the reasons in this article. One strategic motivation for this stance is an attempt to reclaim minority votes that Republicans have been losing steadily over the past few years.
cosponsor on the Senate bill, has outlined some of the reasons in

Despite the promise of this bill, it has limited scope. While the bill eliminates some mandatory minimum sentences, it adds new ones. Moreover, this legislation would only apply to the national prison system, and violent offenses see no mandatory minimum reductions. Regardless, this legislation seems like a step in the right direction.

While Senate passage seems likely given its support at the committee level, the outlook for the SAFE Justice Act (a bipartisan House bill with similar, but more radical goals) is more murky. Boehner endorsed the act, but it is unclear whether McCarthy (or Chaffetz or whoever becomes the new House majority leader) would support the bill. This ties back to the toxic, anti-compromise culture in Congress we've just learned about. Perhaps the bipartisan support of the SAFE Justice Act will be its downfall in the House if some Republicans choose to oppose it because it makes Democrats look good.

Some see this legislation as a “signifier of a new era” in criminal justice reform, but it's possible that this bill may increase divisions within the Republican party, separating them into those who are tough on crime (generally older politicians) and those who believe in a smaller government.

What do you think? Is this type of reform a good idea? What might the ramifications of this legislation be, both direct and indirect?



Sameer Jain said...

I think that the said criminal justice reform may be beneficial. In some cases, mandatory minimums are relatively harmful, as it strips the judge of some power. With mandatory minimums, it is not fully up to the judge to decide the severity of the sentence. In a way, the dynamic of the case can be put in the hands of the system because the system can decide whether or not the defendant ought to be charged with the crime that has a mandatory minimum. The power is moved down from the judge to the system.

Although the effect of the change is somewhat decreased due to the establishment of other mandatory minimums, I think that any sort of change is good change at this point. Also, I think that it is a positive development that the Republican policy is starting to shift. Despite Grassley being both and old senator and a stronger republican, he was willing to support the bill. Like "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" said, the polarization of the parties makes it impossible for good politics to happen. Still, I think that nothing is official until the bill is signed into law. The situation that Josh described in his last paragraph may happen.

Jared Mayerson said...

Although it's definitely a step towards well-needed reform (in my opinion), as Josh explained, this particular act does not do much in the positive direction. Josh pointed out that, "while the [Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act] eliminates some mandatory minimum sentences, it adds new ones" and that it would only, "apply to the national prison system." However, it is good that this bill had bipartisan support. This would mean that more effective legislation could be passed in the future, since a bill of this topic had already been voted on and signed into law. I believe that mandatory minimum sentences are destructive towards the criminal justice system's real purpose of rehabilitating people back into society. They prop the system up as unnecessarily large and don't do much good. If a person commits a crime, judges already have the intuition and ability to decide to give specific criminals a longer sentence. Currently, with these mandatory minimum sentences, a person undeserving of a large punishment, such as a first time offender who already understands the negativity of his or her crime, is forced to spend the same amount of time in jail as a repeated offender. The judge should be able to decide minimum punishments, no matter the crime. I believe this change is necessary, even if it results in the possible division of the republican party.

Emily Shen said...

Mandatory minimums are a problem — I remember reading an article once about someone who stole a slice of pizza and faced an unreasonably long prison sentence ( You would think this wouldn't be a problem — I mean, people regularly come into the pub office and steal our pizza, and you don't see THEM being thrown in jail (maybe they should be >:D) — but three strikes laws can be silly things, even though they were conceived with the intention of resolving the problem of violent recidivist criminals. It's expensive to keep harmless people in prison (good for Republicans), and it arguably violates the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment (good for Democrats, and hopefully everyone), so it should hopefully be a non-issue, but I guess we'll see...