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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.

  • Grainne Dunne
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.