In October, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a criminal justice reform package, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, specifically targeting mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes:
The bill would reform federal prison sentencing to reduce some of the automatic and harsh punishments Congress passed since it began cracking down on drug use. It would end the federal “three strikes” rule and limit the use of mandatory 10-year sentences for offenders who have not committed violent or major felonies.
Beyond reforming the length of some prison terms, the bill would also bulk up rehab programs for selected inmates, including job training, drug treatment and religious programs designed to reduce recidivism. The proposal also restricts the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, an increasingly controversial practice in American prisons.
As I wrote at the time, the proposal isn’t perfect—it has been watered down in its current incarnation—but it includes some important and overdue steps toward making our justice system more free and fair.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a conservative with “a 100 percent score from the Club for Growth, a 100 percent score from the American Conservative Union, and a 99 percent score from the Heritage Foundation,” thought so too. A co-sponsor of the reform package, Lee penned an op-ed explaining why conservatives should get behind the bill.
“The problem today is not simply that penalties are too harsh or sentences too long — though in many cases they are,” he wrote. “The problem is that, over the past several decades, we have industrialized and bureaucratized our criminal, judicial and penal systems.”
“For conservatives,” Lee added, “criminal justice reform is not a venue for the airing of ideological grievances or the testing of fashionable theories. It’s about helping our communities stay as safe and secure as possible, while infringing as little as possible on the God-given, equal rights of all Americans and their pursuit of happiness.”
Evidently Lee’s colleague, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), doesn’t agree.
Cotton is leading opposition to the reform bill, unfairly portraying it as a plan to set violent criminals loose on the unsuspecting American public:
Sen. Tom Cotton, the hawkish upstart who’s already made waves railing against the Iran nuclear deal and government surveillance programs, is now leading a new rebellion against a bipartisan effort to overhaul the criminal justice system — hoping to torpedo one of the only pieces of major legislation that could pass in President Barack Obama’s final year. […]
“It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons,” Cotton said later in an interview with POLITICO. “I think it’s no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question … [but] I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do.”
Cotton’s comments here are blatantly false.
While it’s true (and good!) that the bill would lower mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes, it would lengthen mandatory sentences for some violent crimes, including “selected firearm crimes and creating new mandatory minimums for offenses related to domestic violence and supporting terrorism” as well as “drug crimes committed by people with prior serious violent felony convictions.”
In other words, “let[ting] out violent felons” is exactly what this bill won’t do.
Lee and other supporters of the proposal are pushing back against Cotton’s misleading claims. “It’s not true,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I’d say, please read the bill and listen to people like [former Attorney General] Michael Mukasey who makes the point, which is a critical point, that there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Perhaps we should’ve expected Cotton to oppose releasing nonviolent drug offenders from onerous, expensive prison sentences: On foreign policy, he has a quickly established a record of eagerness to spend huge sums of taxpayer money on failed wars.
Is it really surprising that he wants to keep the failed drug war going, too?
Senators and representatives who actually support limited government should ignore Cotton and follow Lee on this vote. In Lee’s words, “Criminal justice reform, properly understood, is an invitation for principled conservatism at its best.”