September 11, 2013

When Eric Holder announced recently that he is pursuing an ambitious package of sentencing reforms, including proposals to reduce “mandatory minimum” sentences, there was a widespread sense it could attract broad bipartisan support. The thinking was that agreement cuts across party lines that our decades-long experiment in mass incarceration has been a huge policy failure.

Now Dem Congressional aides are asking: Will leading Republicans step forward and support reform? Some bipartisan pairings of senators, like Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul, and Dick Durbin and Mike Lee, have already issued their own calls for action. The administration has already spoken out, which guarantees support among Congressional Dems. Where are leading Republicans?

I can report a new development on this front. I’m told GOP Senator John Cornyn is working on a separate but related package of prison-reform legislation that could help bring more attention to the overall debate. According to his office, Cornyn is developing proposals designed to reduce recidivism rates and time served in prison. The ideas are not sentencing reform and would not reduce the sentences themselves — as would Holder’s proposals — but instead would give prisoners ways to reduce already-doled-out sentences.

The policies, which are modeled on similar reforms in Texas, would allow certain types of non-violent prisoners to do various programs — such as recidivism reduction programming, work programs, or other productive activities. Prisoners at low risk of recidivism could trade in the time they do in such programs to convert their remaining time in prison into time in halfway houses or home confinement.

While these ideas don’t attack the problem in precisely the same way the ideas pushed by Holder and Dems do, there is overlap. As Cornyn’s office notes, their goal would be to reduce the amount of time people spend in prison, reduce recidivisim, and reduce costs. Cornyn’s office says he will try to round up Republican and Democratic support for them and possibly introduce them this fall. If that happens, it could help ignite a conversation on the broader set of issues here.

For various reasons, you’d think the cultural moment is right for a genuine conversation of this kind. The “soft on crime” attacks that were once so ubiquitous from Republicans have lost their political and cultural potency as crime has fallen across the country. As Ed Kilgore has documented, sentencing reform has attracted support from a range of conservatives, from libertarians to conservatives to fiscal hawks. Indeed, this is an area where we should see another one of those Tea Party-progressive alliances we’ve been seeing lately. Some Tea Party Senators, such as Mike Lee and Rand Paul, have embraced the issue.

But we have yet to hear from leading Republicans whose support would be required to push this debate forward, such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, both of whom are on the Judiciary Committee and (to my knowledge) have not seriously weighed in on Holder’s push. The question is whether establishment Republicans are going to have a real voice on this issue this fall. Let’s hope so.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.