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The Orwellian deception of Chuck Grassley’s “leniency industrial complex”

In this Jan. 29, 2014, file photo, Sen. Chuck Grassley thinks Orwellian thoughts. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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In a strongly-worded floor speech on Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) blasted the Smarter Sentencing Act, which is currently before his committee. Grassley accused the bill's bipartisan supporters, including fellow Republicans Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, of being part of a so-called "leniency industrial complex," a rather colorful turn of phrase. In the past, he's defined this as "some people in Congress, the public, academia, and the media, who think that sentences that are being imposed on serious criminal offenders are too stringent." Notice, though, the complete lack of "industry" in Grassley's "industrial complex."

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a fairly modest bill that does not in any way repeal mandatory minimum sentences. But it does reduce some of them, and it gives federal judges more discretion in how to apply them, particularly ones that apply to nonviolent drug offenders.

That small step toward reform is evidently a bridge too far for Grassley. He opened his speech with a litany of the dangers and harmful effects of the narcotics trade -- that heroin use is on the rise, that some terrorist groups profit from the drug trade, etc. These facts are hardly in dispute.

The problem is that Grassley believes, contrary to a mountain of evidence, that mandatory minimum sentences are effective tools for combating these problems. For instance, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that increased incarceration has had no effect on crime rates since 2000, and little effect before that. A report from the Sentencing Project last year found little evidence of a connection between prison rates and crime rates. Perhaps the most damning case against mandatory minimum drug sentences is that since they were instituted in the 80s and 90s, the use of illicit drugs has risen and their price has fallen dramatically.

Grassley also makes the gobsmacking claim that the Smarter Sentencing Act would increase government spending by $1 billion over the next 10 years. His source for this number is the CBO report on the bill which finds that, yes, prisoners released under the proposal would start claiming some federal benefits earlier than they would otherwise, to the tune of about $1 billion dollars. But he neglects to mention that this spending would be accompanied by a $4 billion decrease in spending at the Department of Justice over the same period, for an overall net savings of $3 billion.

Grassley accuses supporters of the bill of being "Orwellian" in their rhetoric. In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." There may be no finer example of this than Grassley's use of the term "leniency industrial complex," which would seem to imply the existence of a powerful corporate network that would profit, somehow, from keeping people out of jail. 

But in reality, there's an awful lot more money to be made by keeping people in jail, as evidenced by the surprising rise of the for-profit prison industry in the U.S. This is an industry that spends millions in lobbying annually (including donations to Senator Grassley's campaigns) to oppose measures like the Smarter Sentencing Act that would cut into their bottom line.

The only thing Orwellian about the debate over the Smarter Sentencing Act is Grassley's continued insistence that it would cost money, promote crime and benefit an unnamed "industrial complex" -- when in fact it would do the exact opposite.