Aug 24 2018
We’ve known for months that criminal justice reform has the votes to become President Trump’s first major bipartisan accomplishment. All it needs is time on the Senate floor for amendments and a final vote.
And this week we got word that that floor time will come. We just have to wait until this November’s midterm elections.
After a meeting at the White House to discuss the administration’s position on possible reforms, Senior Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner came to the Capitol to brief Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), and me and to discuss a possible timeline for such a bill to reach the floor.
We emerged from these meetings with a consensus on what a reform package should look like and an agreement that the bill would see a vote sometime after the midterm elections.
The main body of bill we agreed to looks a lot like the First Step Act that the House passed with overwhelming support – 226 in favor to 134 against – and four important sentencing reforms added in.
There is a small minority who believe we can incarcerate our way out of any social problem, but the damage that draconian mandatory minimum sentences have done to families and communities has become just too apparent. The time for reform has come.
Big conservative states like Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, and my own state of Utah have all passed similar criminal justice reform legislation. And it is already working. In all four states, crime rates and incarceration rates are down. This means fewer victims and fewer ruined lives.
Justice, by its very nature, requires balance. Justice cannot be served if the punishment does not fit the crime, especially when the punishment imposed by the state results in fractured ties to the outside world and reinforced connections to the criminal world.
Justice was not served in the case of Weldon Angelos, who was convicted for selling three dime bags of pot during a 24-hour period of time and having a gun on him when arrested.
No one argues that Weldon was innocent; he undeniably committed a crime when he sold marijuana. However, even the judge who was forced to impose the 55-year mandatory minimum prison term required for this non-violent drug offense felt that this sentence was unjust.
That is why the four sentencing reforms attached to this possible bill are so important. They would address many of the issues that mandate overly harsh sentences to be imposed.
This would be done by changing some legal definitions regarding what makes someone a repeat offender, loosening the requirements of the current “point” system, and lowering the low-end of mandatory minimums.
That does not mean that a person committing a crime would automatically get a shorter sentence than they would under current sentencing laws. It does, however, mean that a judge would have more discretion when deciding what sentence to impose, making cases like Weldon’s much less likely.
Our country is facing an almost epidemic uptick in illegal drug use. Criminal justice reform opponents would have us believe the best way to address this is to make mandatory minimums higher, stricter, and to pack our prisons with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and throw away the key.
But that does not address this issue head on, provides no added closure to the victims, and would result in the loss of human capital, both of those convicted and the shattered families they would leave behind.
Yes, people found guilty should be punished for their crimes, but not in a way that reinforces and oftentimes encourages repeated deviant behavior.
These reforms have worked on a state level, and it is past time to pass them on the federal level. President Trump can now succeed where President Obama failed. This can be a huge bipartisan win for his administration, but most importantly, it will be a win for the American people we are charged to protect.