Saturday, February 13, 2016

GateHouse: The politics of fear doom criminal justice reform

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
February 12, 2016
When a group of six senators led by Republican Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced a rare bipartisan criminal justice bill last October there was much fanfare on Capitol Hill.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 would have reduced penalties for repeat drug offenders and eliminated the “three strikes” mandatory life sentence. Grassley called it “the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation,” and both parties were on board. However, calls to crack open the champagne in celebration of bipartisan criminal justice reform was a bit premature.
When Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won the New Hampshire primary he mentioned criminal justice reform in his victory speech. He isn’t a johnny-come-lately to the issue. On his campaign website he touts his recent introduction of the Justice is Not for Sale Act of 2015, which would ban all private prisons and bring back parole on a federal level to “reduce the proliferation of mass incarceration.” He also wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing. Sanders is not out of step with the mainstream on these issues. According to the The Sentencing Project, at least 12 states authorized new sentencing laws or modified policy practices to address prison population growth. Connecticut reduced criminal penalties for certain drug offenses; and Oklahoma’s governor directed parole officials to establish a sentence reduction policy for offenders sentenced to certain mandatory penalties.
Evan the ultra-conservative Koch brothers support criminal justice reform, going so far as to collaborate with left-leaning organizations to push for change.
In President Barack Obama’s final budget to Congress, he asked for $500 million to help states make broad criminal justice reforms.
The new “21st Century Justice Initiative” was announced as part of a $29 billion budget request for the U.S. Department of Justice. According to The Crime Report, the new program has three objectives: reduce crime, reverse policies that cause “unnecessarily long sentences and unnecessary incarceration” and build community trust in the justice system.
Why is opposition to reform percolating among national, state and local candidates? Although violent crime rates are at near record lows, a Gallup poll released last fall found that nearly six in 10 Americans — 59 percent — say crime in the United States is an “extremely” or “very” serious problem.
The politics of fear is helping push reform aside. Without public support for change reform is doomed especially in the midst of an election year.
With the presidential race in full throttle, priorities, and positions, have changed. GOP Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has argued on the campaign trail that the bipartisan senate legislation would increase the crime rate and allow offenders out of jail who are likely to commit additional crimes.
Although Cruz supported the Smarter Sentencing Act — a prior version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — he came out against the new bill. Cruz’s GOP colleagues in the senate have not only quashed reform, some are looking to add new barriers to reform efforts already in place.
Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced a partisan bill this week, backed by Senator David Perdue (R-Ga.), Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that would require the administration to disclose recidivism rates for federal inmates released early because of reduced sentences.
The four senators also called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act “dangerous for America.”
In fact, Cotton wrote in a recent op-ed, “This in nothing short of a massive social experiment in criminal leniency. And this experiment threatens to undo the historic drops in crime we have seen over the past generation.”
And so, as Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) made clear this week, Congress will not be passing a major criminal justice reform bill while President Obama is office.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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