Momentum for prison reform, driven by a bipartisan coalition of civil rights oriented Democrats and small government Republicans, has been building for years. The issue of over-incarceration is in the public consciousness like never before, state prison populations are falling, and the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill overhauling federal sentencing with support from heavyweights on both sides of the aisle. But we are now seeing some signs that the “prison reform moment” may be on hold—or at least, that the dissenters will be more vocal than they were last year or the year before. Politico reports:
GOP tensions over a bill that would effectively loosen some mandatory minimum sentences spilled over during a party lunch last week, when Cotton (R-Ark.), the outspoken Senate freshman, lobbied his colleagues heavily against the legislation, according to people familiar with the closed-door conversation. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall with bipartisan support.
Cotton isn’t alone. Other Senate Republicans, including Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and David Perdue of Georgia, also registered their strong opposition during the lunch, even as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) vigorously defended the bill, which he helped negotiate. Risch stressed this message, according to one Republican source: Shouldn’t the GOP be a party of law and order?
The failure of the sentencing reform bill to sail through the Senate is partly a story about election year politics—as Michelle Cottle explained in the Atlantic, one reason the bill has yet to come to the floor is that New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte is facing a tight re-election race in New Hampshire, a state with an acute opioid epidemic magnified in the media by its early presidential primary. But it also points to deeper trends: In particular, the rise of the Jacksonian wing of the Republican Party, and the retreat of the Jeffersonians. For a few years during the Obama presidency, it appeared that Jeffersonians like Rand Paul, who supported reining in the NSA, softening the criminal justice system, and scaling back the war on terror, represented the future of the GOP. But the Jeffersonian moment is over, and the nationalist Jacksonians have come roaring back. Crime, terror, immigration, and general law-and-order toughness is Andrew Jackson’s bread-and-butter. It’s no surprise that the Jacksonian revival would frustrate criminal justice reform efforts, at least temporarily.
At Via Meadia, we continue to believe that our nation incarcerates too many people, and that there are smart and cautious ways to move reduce the prison population, save money, and give people well-deserved second-chances without upsetting the relative peace that we have achieved since the crime wave began to decline in the 1990s. The bill being considered in the Senate seems like a good—if mostly symbolic—step in that direction. That said, there is a real risk of criminal justice reformers overreaching, and its healthy for them to face some intelligent opposition.