Criminal Justice Reform Brings Parties Together

Criminal Justice Reform Brings Parties Together
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In an era of hyper-partisanship in Washington, it’s rare to see Republicans and Democrats come together on any issue. Even more rare in the Obama administration has been to see congressional Republicans and Democrats agreeing with each other and also with the White House. But reforming the criminal justice system has been a magnet pulling the two parties and two branches of government together. 

On Tuesday, the White House hosted a meeting that included President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and 16 members of Congress – 10 Democrats and six Republicans, including conservative Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah – to discuss criminal justice reform.

The president viewed it “as an opportunity for us to find some common ground to move the country forward,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday before the meeting. “There are some Republicans who have raised similar concerns that the president himself has discussed about our criminal justice system, about reforms that could make our system more consistent with our values of fairness and justice and equality.”

Perhaps even more surprising than the meeting itself was participants’ reviews: both liberals and conservatives walked out of the White House raving about its success.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called it a “phenomenal meeting” in an interview with the Huffington Post Tuesday night. Sen. Lee told RCP it was “overwhelmingly positive.” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said it was “an extraordinary meeting.”

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, called it “probably one of the best meetings I’ve attended since I’ve been here in Washington.”

Bipartisan agreement on criminal justice reform isn’t entirely new. Last summer, Booker and Paul teamed up for a piece of legislation called the REDEEM Act, intended to make it easier to give nonviolent offenders a second chance by allowing nonviolent and juvenile criminal records to be sealed, among other things. 

“The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record,” Paul said in a statement when the bill was released. The senators plan to reintroduce the bill in this Congress, a spokeswoman for Paul confirmed.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip, and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island also have a partnership going back to last year on criminal justice reform. Earlier this month, the senators announced the CORRECTIONS Act, a prison reform bill designed to reduce the number of repeat offenders. The legislation would allow low- and medium-risk offenders to reduce their sentence time by participating in programs designed to prevent recidivism. The senators introduced a similar bill last year, which passed the Judiciary Committee by a 15-2 vote.

And yet another show of bipartisan – and bicameral – support for justice reform is the Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored in the House by Labrador and Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, and in the Senate by Durbin and Lee, all of whom attended the White House meeting. The bills would give more discretion to judges ruling in nonviolent drug cases, with the goal of lowering the prison population.

Lee said on KSL News radio in Utah Wednesday that the Smarter Sentencing Act was one of Obama’s key focuses in the meeting, and that the president wants to see it passed. He added that the president and vice president meeting with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle shows how serious the White House is about justice reform, and that Obama has “got the resources of his administration that he’s willing to put out there and put to our use as we move this legislation forward.”

In yet another show of bipartisanship, Lee invited Booker to join him for that radio interview. Booker touted Lee as “first and foremost a public safety guy” and was effusive in his praise for Lee and Durbin in finding space where members of the opposite parties could come together.

“The fact that you have one of the more liberal guys with one of the more conservative guys who are coming together and leading us other senators on this very important mission says a lot,” Booker said.

“It was just a unique meeting that I haven’t had since I’ve been in Washington,” he added.

Several lawmakers saw the irony in the odd bedfellows on this issue. Durbin joked that when someone like himself and Sen. Ted Cruz support the same legislation, “obviously one of them hasn’t read it.” Labrador said he refers to the grouping of conservatives and liberals as the “wing nut coalition.”

Most lawmakers agree opposites attract on criminal justice reform because the problem is so serious and solutions are within reach. Lee said there’s strong data showing that the prison population has “exploded” in the past three decades, and members of Congress are starting to realize the implications of the trend.

Labrador said that though members of different parties may come at the issues for different reasons, ultimately, questions of civil liberties can bring the parties together. Durbin said that while those in the progressive wing have meshed with those on the libertarian side, the next step is to find middle ground that can win over moderates. He thinks it’s doable.

Several who attended the meeting brushed off questions of a timeline for justice reform, and said they saw this as a good starting point to see what broad ideas could move forward. Though specific bills were discussed at the meeting, several attendees said it wasn’t exactly clear which bills – whether sentencing reform or reforms for rehabilitating nonviolent offenders – will make it through Congress first. But all were optimistic about the chances that something will get done.

“We all believe we have a real opportunity here to do something in the area of criminal justice, that the stars are lining up on both the Republican and Democratic side for some concepts that we need to really push,” Durbin said. 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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