Paul Ryan’s Evolution from ‘Tough on Crime’ to Reform Advocate

Ryan’s comments signal there still may be hope for reform this session. They also send a strong message to leaders from both parties that despite past views or partisan sentiment, criminal justice reform warrants consideration.

March 24, 2016

With virtual gridlock in the U.S. Senate over the recent Supreme Court nomination and the partisan divide widening as the 2016 election draws closer, expectations for movement on legislation in Washington are low. However, this week criminal justice reform advocates got some welcome news from House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Following a speech he gave on the state of American politics, Ryan announced that he will be bringing criminal justice reform bills to the House floor for a vote. This is a huge step forward. On the Senate side, legislation has been stalled for months, awaiting action by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who so far has declined to bring it to the floor.

But it wasn’t just Ryan’s promise to move the bill that grabbed people’s attention. When asked to name a time he’s been persuaded to change his view, Ryan discussed how his thoughts on criminal justice reform have changed overtime.

And one of the things that I learned was there are a lot of people who have been in prison, who committed crimes that were not violent crimes, and who once they have that blight on their record and have been in prison, their future is really bleak. And in the 1990s, I came here in the late ’90s, we I think overcompensated on some of our criminal justice laws. I think we overcompensated on some of our laws where we had so many mandatory minimums and “three strikes you’re out,” that we ended up putting people for long prison terms, which ends up ruining their life and hurting their communities, where we could have had alternative means of incarceration. Better means of actually dealing with the problem than basically destroying a person’s life.

And so that is why I’ve become more of a latecomer to criminal justice reform. Criminal justice reform is something that I never thought about when I was younger in Congress. It’s something that I thought “just be tough on crime, be tough on crime,” and I think we as Republicans and Democrats kind of overcompensated on this in the 1990s, and now that we see the path, the pathologies that have come from that, we’ve got to go back and fix that.

Ryan is not the only “latecomer to criminal justice reform.” Some of the most ardent supporters of tough criminal penalties have now acknowledged the system needs to change. Just last month, a panel of law enforcement experts — many of whom have spent their careers enforcing these “tough-on-crime” laws — traveled to Washington in a show of support for reform, specifically a bill that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes. And in 2015, a group of political leaders from both parties penned essays for the Brennan Center book Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice. In the pieces, leaders proposed different routes to the same uniting goal: to fix a system that’s not working.

Much has been learned in the last 25 years about who should be locked up and for how long. Today, we know that simply putting people behind bars does not make us safer. Research shows longer sentences can often increase recidivism, especially for low-level offenders. And, a Brennan Center report released last year found that high incarceration rates had a limited effect on lowering crime rates from 1990 to 2000, and have had no effect since 2000.  

As efforts stall in the Senate, Ryan’s comments signal there still may be hope for criminal justice reform this session. They also send a strong message to leaders from both parties that despite their past views or partisan sentiment, criminal justice reform warrants consideration.