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Criminal justice reform an opportunity for bipartisanship in D.C.

Congressman Paul Ryan emerged from a closed-door meeting of House Republicans earlier this month.AP/file

Thanksgiving is traditionally the time of year when I try to take a glass half-full approach to column-writing. The problem, however, is that I generally write about national politics and finding an optimistic take on that is practically a herculean challenge these days.

But here's an exception – and it comes in the most unexpected of places: criminal justice reform. Over the past several years, Republicans have dramatically softened their anti-crime rhetoric, becoming advocates for genuine and long overdue reform. Amazingly, it provides a genuine opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to get something done in Congress.

Case in point: Paul Ryan — the architect of a congressional budget that took a sledgehammer to the welfare state. But last summer he unveiled an anti-poverty agenda that even a liberal could love. In language that could have been pulled from the pages of the Nation rather than National Review, he wrote sympathetically about how a criminal record stunts economic prospects, disproportionately harms minorities and does lasting damage to the families of those who are incarcerated. He called for giving judges greater leniency in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders, reducing mandatory minimums and bringing an increased focus to rehabilitation, alternatives to jail time and reducing recidivism — both on the federal and local level.

For some liberals this might sound like a political trap. Twenty years ago, when crime was a national issue, it devolved into a political competition to see who could treat criminals more harshly — and brand their opponents as soft on crime. Mandatory minimums were put in place; the death penalty was expanded; and prison construction became a growth industry.


It turned America into the most incarcerated society in the Western world. So while Americans make up 5 percent of the world's population they now make up a quarter of the world's prison population. This increased jail time is not churning out better citizens. Forty percent of federal prisoners and more than 60 percent of state prisoners end up back in the criminal justice system within just three years after release.


The drug war looms large in these statistics. Approximately half of those in federal prisons, for example, are serving time for drug offenses — far more that those doing time for violent crime. It's one of the reasons that over the past year Attorney General Eric Holder has focused on rolling back war on drugs and President Obama has talked about clemency for low-level drug offenders. Since 2000, 29 states have lowered mandatory minimum sentences, mostly for drug offenders.

In Congress, conservative members like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho have cosponsored bills to de-emphasize incarceration and provide nonviolent drug offenders with options other than mandatory prison time.

There are several reasons for the GOP's change of heart. Fiscal conservatives view the prison industrial complex as a waste of taxpayer dollars and a troubling increase in state power. For social conservatives, giving criminals a second chance is seen as the moral thing to do. But perhaps the most important factor is that the US is in the midst of a two-decade long decline in crime rates. In 1993, 80 out of every 1,000 Americans were the victims of violent crime – today the number is down to 26. And there is little indication in national polling that crime is a major concern.


In fact, in recent midterm elections, voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., legalized the use of marijuana and in California, they approved Proposition 47, which will downgrade nonviolent felonies like drug possession and shoplifting to misdemeanors. It could lead to the release of tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders.

Cynics might be inclined to view this as mere political posturing by Republicans, in general, and Ryan, in particular: an attempt by a party with a poor national brand to appear more compassionate and on an issue where the GOP is generally more trusted. But that is what makes Ryan's call for reform so fascinating. He is seeking political benefit by sounding soft on crime. And he has to get in line behind other 2016 wannabes, like Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and even Texas Governor Rick Perry, all of whom have already called for a different approach to incarceration.

Sentencing reform and a focus on rehabilitation will not end all the inequities of American jurisprudence. As we were reminded again this week in the Michael Brown case, racial biases continue to distort our criminal justice system to a disconcerting degree.

But if Ryan and his Republican presidential aspirants are serious about taking a first step toward reversing decades of bad criminal justice policy, Democrats, many of whom have long supported such steps, should heartily jump on the bandwagon.

After all, it's not like much else is getting done in Washington these days.


Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.