Republicans Resurrect Sentencing Reform

The urgent need for these commonsense reforms should transcend partisan politics, and Sens. Grassley, Durbin, and Speaker Ryan should be commended for their leadership and support of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

January 23, 2017

There’s a lot of talk about Congress’s first priorities under the Trump Administration — dismantling Obamacare, infrastructure spending, and building a wall along the country’s southern border. But amid the divisive issues, Republicans and Democrats actually have a major opportunity to come together on an issue they both support: criminal justice reform.

Last year, top lawmakers, including Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) championed the Republican-led Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, legislation that would have cautiously reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes, while retaining tough penalties for violent crimes. In addition to bipartisan support in the Senate and from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the bill had the backing of conservative groups including Koch Industries, and law enforcement organizations such as the Major Cities Chiefs and National District Attorneys Associations. Unfortunately, the bill stalled after Sens. Jeff Sessions (R- Ala.), Donald Trump’s Attorney General nominee, and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) opposed the bill citing alarmist and debunked concerns about rising crime.   

But earlier this month, Grassley and Durbin said they plan to revive the bill. Ryan is on-board. It might be hard to imagine it passing amid Trump’s “law-and-order” rhetoric, but criminal justice reform is not out of reach. Leading police groups sent a letter to both Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton, arguing that over-incarceration is in fact a public safety issue.  

[W]e also know that our burgeoning prison population is creating a new public safety challenge. Though this may seem counterintuitive, we know from our experience as law enforcement officials that over-relying on incarceration does not deter crime. As prison budgets have continued to rise, funding for state and local law enforcement has been slashed, negatively impacting innovative work in the field including diversion programs, updating information-sharing systems, and smart policing tactics. With finite prison space, we believe prison should be used for the most dangerous offenders.

That’s what the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act does. By reducing sentences for low-level crimes, it puts resources where they’re needed most. That helps police and prosecutors do their jobs better. It eases overcrowded prisons. And it saves money. 

The urgent need for these commonsense reforms should transcend partisan politics, and Grassley, Durbin, and Ryan should be commended for their leadership and support of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Trump should follow suit. With leaders in his own party and the new Congress on board, he has a chance to make this happen in 2017. Let’s hope he takes it.