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September 11, 2013 3:27 PM Let’s See Some Movement on Sentencing Reform

By Ed Kilgore

It’s now been nearly a month since Attorney General Eric Holder proposed a batch of sentencing reform initiatives. Some were of the sort that can be implemented by federal prosecutors, but others require legislation. The timing looked great because of a slowly growing but very significant trend among conservatives to rethink (as David Dagan and Steven Teles explained in the November/December 2012 issue of the Washington Monthly) the “lock ‘em up” strategies they used to embrace with great fervor—a trend reflected in the cosponsorship of legislation to relax mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions by Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee. But what about other Republicans?

Greg Sargent asks this excellent question today and gets some answers:

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….
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….
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.

Yes, let’s do. This is an issue where there should be no real principled ideological conflict between the parties, and where the administration has offered the first systematic proposal. Progress on this front, moreover, would do more to boost the reputation of the Republican Party for sensitivity to minority concerns than all the “outreach” GOPers have attempted in many years. So let’s see some bipartisan pressure on Hatch and Sessions to wake up and act.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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