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Will Iowa Help Bring About National Sentencing Reform?

After Tuesday’s election, Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley holds the key to criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill.

Published: November 7, 2014

The results of Tuesday’s election mean that Sen. Charles Grassley, the longtime Republican lawmaker from Iowa, will almost certainly become the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, switching places with his old friend, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat from Vermont. In this role, Sen. Grassley will wield enormous power to block (or not) the Obama Administration’s judicial nominees. But Sen. Grassley also now will hold the key to criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill.

There was a time in Washington, in the not-too-distant past, when Republican control of the criminal justice agenda surely meant more prisons, more prisoners, and more laws designating criminal conduct. But that time is gone, at least for now. One political pundit after another cited “criminal justice” as one legislative area in which Democrats and Republicans have common ground now. And one Republican presidential candidate after another seems open to the idea of reducing the imprint of government by enacting sensible measures to reduce mass incarceration.

 Where does all of that leave Sen. Grassley? It’s hard to say. Let’s take the Smarter Sentencing Act, for example. It’s the smart, bipartisan, reform legislation that would ease the federal prison crisis and yet it has been languishing on Capitol Hill for many months now after it was endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure would reduce the number of federal prisoners by, among other things, easing sentences for non-violent drug offenders, the class of inmates that has crushed the budget of the Bureau of Prisons to the detriment of the budgets of other Justice Department programs.

Sen. Grassley could help ensure that the Smarter Sentencing Act gets a vote, at least, either before or after the turnover in January. But there isn’t much reason to think he will. He voted against the Act earlier this year when it came before him as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and his remarks about it this past spring, which you can read in full here, leave little doubt about the extent of the disdain he feels for it. Here is one illustrative passage:

When supporters of this bill say that the bill only applies to nonviolent offenders, don’t be misled into thinking it applies to people in federal prison for simple possession of marijuana. It doesn’t.  The offenses covered in this bill are violent.  Importing cocaine is violent. The whole operation turns on violence. Dealing heroin also involves violence or the threat of violence. And the offense for which the offender is sentenced may have been violent. The defendant’s co-defendant might have used a gun. And while the bill does not apply to a drug crime for which the defendant used violence, it does apply to criminals where the defendant has a history of committing violent crime.

Is there any reason to believe that Sen. Grassley’s views have softened on the SSA since last spring? Any reason to think that the results of Tuesday’s elections will make him more rather than less inclined to work with Democrats on this piece of legislation? Ah, but there is a wild card here worth following, news from the senator’s home state that surely will be a factor in how this drama plays out. A new state report, published this week, projects that Iowa’s prison population could grow by 39 percent over the next ten years.

Increased prison admissions, increased probation revocations, and the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences all will contribute to the projected increase. The punch line of the piece is that Iowa’s prison population already exceeds capacity. In other words, Sen. Grassley is facing a situation in his home state that mirrors the one that United States faces when it comes to mass incarceration and unsustainable costs associated with prisons.

In Iowa, the prisons chief was quoted this week as saying that the looming problem of prison overcrowding (and the massive funding problem that will create) must be solved primarily by the state legislature. The national legislature, meanwhile, is staring at one such solution, a bill with broad bipartisan support, which Sen. Grassley can help turn into law. Will he watch Iowa’s prison system spiral into chaos without ensuring that the federal Bureau of Prisons does not? Or will he see the many and obvious virtues of the Smarter Sentencing Act, press for a vote on it, and thus signal to voters who say they want criminal justice reform that the Republicans truly are willing to help make it happen.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: AP)