Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan re-affirmed his support for pending legislation that would slash sentences for many federal criminal inmates, saying he wants to get the bill to President Barack Obama’s desk before the next congressional session begins in 2017.
“I’m trying to get criminal justice reform done this session of Congress,” Ryan said at the Economic Club of New York.
I obviously think that’s a very important element and we’re looking at how we can get that done. We’ve gotten six bills out of that judiciary committee already. So that train’s on the tracks, and I’m hoping we can get that done sooner rather than later.
Ryan has little time, partly because the House and Senate have yet to overcome Democratic stalling tactics on the 2017 budget. But the legislature can hold a “lame duck” session after the Nov. 8 election to pass unpopular legislation for Obama’s signature by his departure date on Jan. 20.
Many Republicans, like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, have sharply criticized the pending legislation as “criminal-leniency” bills. Alabama’s Sen. Jeff Sessions has repeatedly denounced the bill, saying it would sign the death warrants for thousands of crime victims.
This opposition has stymied Ryan, so far. In May, Cotton declared that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), which would roll back mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers, free thousands of dangerous felons, and act as a de-facto amnesty for illegal alien drug traffickers, dead in the Senate.
With or without Republicans’ help, the Obama administration is on track to release up 70,000 federal prisoners — nearly one-third of all federal inmates.
The issue is complicated by a backroom GOP push for a comprehensive deal that would include provisions to help business executives fend off business-related criminal charges. But Obama has rejected the proposed “mens rea” white-collar changes proposed by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and other Republicans leaders.
Advocates of the rollback try to downplay the severity of crimes committed by “drug offenders” in federal prisons. Sessions warned in May that a rewrite would spring drug dealers from prison, not addicts caught with small amounts of an illegal drug: “The Senate bill would drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentences for all drug traffickers, even those who are armed and traffic in dangerous drugs like heroin, and provide for the early release of dangerous drug felons currently incarcerated in federal prison. This bill doesn’t touch simple possession, because there’s virtually no simple possession cases in federal court.”
Ryan has been touring impoverished communities wracked by drug abuse, and is inspired by families piecing back together their lives after addiction took its toll — they are “applying our free-market principles in a distinct, new way” and becoming “social entrepreneurs,” he said.
“For the past four years, I’ve been going around the country with my friend Bob Woodson and visiting some of the poorest communities in America. I’ve been to drug clinics, homeless shelters, you name it. And you know, I went in thinking all I’d see would be shuttered homes and shattered lives,” Ryan said in New York. “But that’s not at all what I saw.”
“What I saw was the drug dealer who had become a drug counselor, the tough guy who had become a family man, the gang leader who had become an entrepreneur. I saw the small businesses they created, the support groups they formed, the loving families they had rebuilt. In other words, I went in expecting to see the worst of America, and I came out realizing I’d just seen the best of the America,” he said earnestly:
I’ll give you just one example. At Pulaski High School in Milwaukee, there’s something called the Violence-Free Zone program. The school hires about five young graduates to mentor the next generation. But these are not your garden-variety guidance counselors. These are ex-gang members, people who know the streets. And that’s precisely why they have the credibility to tell kids, ‘Don’t make the same mistakes I did.’ Pulaski started this program just a few years back. And what happened? Suspensions went down. Attendance went up. There used to be fourteen gangs that roamed the school grounds. Today, they’ve all but disappeared. And the principal had tried all sorts of things to keep students safe—a bigger police presence, more cameras. But only this program worked.
Now, I could say to you, how fortunate to see the crime rate decline — or how encouraging to see the graduation rate rise. But that’s not the reason I love this story. I love this story because I saw, with my own two eyes, the American Idea come to life — for real, flesh-and-blood human beings. Here were people who had lost their way, now finding their place in life. Here was the power of people working together to turn around their lives. You may not read about them in Fortune or the Wall Street Journal. They may not grow up to be rich people or famous people. But without a doubt, they are growing up to be free people — upstanding citizens — good-hearted Americans. They are applying our free-market principles in a distinct, new way. They are social entrepreneurs.
“And they are the reason that I am optimistic — because you walk away from your experience thinking, ‘What talent. What drive. What courage.’ You walk away thinking, ‘You know, we need them. We need to get them and others back into the economy. It’s only when we start chipping away at that 94 million people out of the work force that we’ll really make a dent in that $19 trillion in debt. We need the federal government to work with them, not against them. And here’s the thing: They are more than eager to do it. They’re ready. They can’t wait to get started.’ That’s when you think to yourself, ‘If they can beat their odds, then who are we to complain about ours?’
“But, of course, it’s not enough to praise the success stories. We need to change our laws so that we see more of them. Our policy platform must be more than an ode to the power of positive thinking.
Government has overreached in the war on drugs, Ryan recently said on a leftist radio program.
“I think government, both Republicans and Democrats, overcompensated on our criminal code,” Ryan told NPR. “And we went too far and there are disparities — crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine — there are clear disparities and more importantly, I think that we’ve learned there are better ways of dealing with some of these problems than locking up somebody for 20 or 30 years. You end up ruining their lives, ruining their families, hurting communities, and then when they try to re-enter into society, they’re destitute.”
But Ryan’s efforts run counter to the concerns of the electorate, as Breitbart News has extensively documented:
Voters want safer communities as they see crime rates rising. The Opinion Research Corporation found that 58 percent of voters think politicians aren’t doing enough to keep drug traffickers off the streets, but only 30 percent thought we lock up drug traffickers for too long, a 2-to-1 margin.
Remarkably, female respondents expressed much more support for stronger enforcement than men, with 62 percent of women (mothers, daughters, wives) saying not enough is done to keep traffickers far from their families — indicating a law and order agenda is an issue that can win over significant numbers of women voters.
Middle and lower-class Americans’ crime worries have dramatically increased since Obama launched his “stigmatize-and-federalize” cops campaign: 68 percent of nonwhite respondents in a Gallup poll said they worried “a great deal” about crime, along with 53 percent of political independents. Cutting sentences for federal inmates is a bipartisan priority only in the Beltway — back in middle America, cracking down on crime unites diverse constituencies.
Murder is also on the rise in America’s major cities, with several high-profile rapes and murders of pretty young women shocking a nation already unnerved by a rash of cop killings and domestic unrest. More Americans than ever are dying from drug overdoses.
As Breitbart News previously reported: “Drug overdoses claimed the lives of 47,055 Americans in 2014, and nearly half a million have died from mostly heroin or opiate overdoses in the past decade. Heroin use increased a staggering 79 percent from 2007 to 2012.” Passing more lenient criminal justice laws in such a climate could trigger a powerful backlash at the ballot box for several cycles to come.