Sen. Marco Rubio hasn’t hammered out a firm position on mandatory minimum sentencing laws yet.
A year ago, that would have been perfectly normal for a Republican senator and rumored presidential contender. But over the last months, most of the potential Republican nominees have voiced support for policy changes that historically might have gotten them the toxic “soft on crime” label. These days, though, backing prison reform lets Republicans simultaneously resurrect compassionate conservatism and reach out to voters who wouldn’t typically find much to love from the GOP.
Rep. Paul Ryan is one of the latest potential presidential candidates to tout mandatory minimum sentencing reform as part of a conservative strategy to reduce poverty. The Daily Beast reported that in May Ryan indicated to a group of reporters that he was revisiting the issue, especially regarding mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
“I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges,” he said at the time. “I think there’s an appreciation that that approach has some collateral damage — that that approach is missing in many ways… I think there is a new appreciation that we need to give judges more discretion in these areas.”
Since then, he has debuted a new anti-poverty agenda that includes support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill with a Senate version co-sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tea Party favorite Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and a House version from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. That bill would shorten some of the mandatory minimum sentence lengths and also would expand the “safety valve” that keeps some non-violent drug offenders from facing mandatory sentences.
“It would give judges more discretion with low-risk, non-violent offenders,” Ryan said in a speech at conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. “All we’re saying is, they don’t have to give the maximum sentence every time. There’s no reason to lock someone up any longer than necessary.”
Ryan is the latest in a string of potential presidential contenders to get on board with prison reform. But it’s likely the state of criminal justice reform would look different without Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In 2007, the Texas legislature adopted a budget designed to reduce the number of people incarcerated and spend more money on treatment. Since then, the state has closed three adult and six juvenile prisons, crime rates have reached levels as low as in the 1960s, and recidivism rates have dipped.
Perry has used his national platform to tout this reform — at a Conservative Political Action Conference (panel with Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, for instance, he said real conservatives should look to shut down prisons and save money — and other states have adopted reforms following the Lone Star State model.
Sen. Rand Paul, another 2016 favorite, has been one of prison reform’s most vocal boosters. In an April 2013 speech at Howard University — a speech that got mixed reviews — he drew plaudits for criticizing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
“Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy-handed and arbitrary,” he said, per CNS News. “They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them. We should stand and loudly proclaim enough’s enough.”
That speech took prison reform one step closer to becoming a national conservative issue, rather than just the purview of state-level think tank wonks and back-room chats among social conservative leaders.
And, of course, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed the issue in his second inaugural, connecting support for prison reform to his pro-life convictions.
None of this support means that legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act has good odds in this Congress. Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Lee, said that since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s astounding primary loss, House Republicans have become more gun-shy about any sort of politically complicated reform measures. And GovTrack.us gives that bill a 39 percent chance of being enacted.
But that doesn’t mean conservative appetite for prison reform will abate. Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said interest in the issue is growing.
“It can’t go away,” she said. “If Congress doesn’t fix it now, it’s still going to be a problem next year. It’s going to be a problem at the Department [of Justice], it’s going to be a problem in appropriations committees, it’s going to be a problem for the Commerce, Justice and Finance subcommittees when they’re doing appropriations bills — because there is no more money coming, and we’re just going to keep stuffing people into overcrowded prisons.”
Norquist told the Daily Beast in April that “by the time we get to the caucuses, every single Republican running for president will be versed on this.”
For now, most of the Senate Republicans publicly eyeing 2016 bids have co-sponsored Lee and Durbin’s Smarter Sentencing Act — except Rubio, who said his office is examining it.
“I haven’t looked at the details of it yet and taken a formal position,” he said. “We study those things carefully.”