A short while ago I posted about the bipartisan enactment of the First Step Act, a bipartisan compromise bill offering evidence-based rehabilitation programming and early releases for nonviolent drug offenders. Harkening back to the pre-Trump era of cooperation, the animus behind this law is pragmatic, but I does have some important humanitarian provisions, such as the categorical prohibition of shackling pregnant women or women who have just given birth.

William Barr’s confirmation hearings yielded many interesting insights into his future as Attorney General. For me, one interesting moment was when Chuck Grassley (!!!) pressed Barr on his tough-on-crime record. The Brennan Center reports:

“Will you commit to fully implementing the FIRST STEP Act?” asked Sen. Chuck Grassley, a key champion of the law. 

“Yes, senator,” Barr responded. Barr said that when he was last attorney general in the early 1990s, the violent crime rate was high and prison sentences were short. The system had broken down, he said. Barr argued that the growth of the prison population helped bring crime down since then, something the Brennan Center strongly disputes. But he acknowledged that times have changed. 

“I have no problem with the approach of reforming the prison structure and I will faithfully implement the law.”

This excerpt is a real gem. First, note that the question comes from Grassley, not usually who you’d think of as a champion for the oppressed. Second, note that Barr does not just say he’ll uphold the law, but actually goes into the merits of the law and essentially makes the argument that times have changed.

As the Brennan Center reports elsewhere, Barr is no bleeding heart prison reformer himself. The exchange between him and Grassley is an exchange between two Republicans, which confirms that much of the spirit of Cheap and Crime is alive and well.

This makes Sessions’ tenure as Attorney General even more interesting as an outlier. When touring with Cheap on Crime, I met Vikrant Reddy, an interesting and sharp-minded thinker about criminal justice reform on the right side of the political map. When we met, Reddy was working for Right on Crime, a conservative think tank about which I wrote extensively in the book. Right on Crime was making the argument that economic sustainability and small government principles required trimming the criminal justice apparatus, calling a truce on the war on drugs, and considering programs for reducing imprisonment. He has since then changed affiliations and now works for the Koch institute as a Senior Fellow. When we met, I asked Reddy what he thought about the diversity of opinion about criminal justice within the Republican Party. He said something that I found very interesting.

There was a generational gap, Reddy explained, between “old-skool” Republicans, who came of age politically during the era of high crime rates between the 1960s and 1980s, and the newer generation of conservative politicians, who were representing constituencies that experienced much safer streets and communities. The latter group was much more open to political compromise, if only for the sake of financial prudence.

Sessions is definitely a card-carrying member of the former group of politicians. In his confirmation hearings, he referred to marijuana smokers as “bad people”, an approach woefully out of touch not only with empirical research but with public opinion across the political spectrum. In an era of reasonable Republicans invested in reform, the Trump administration had to look long and hard for the only war-on-drugs dinosaur left in the Republican Party, and in Sessions, they found this rare and dying breed, to the detriment of us all: Sessions proceeded immediately to instruct federal prosecutors  to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy, which the prosecutors themselves called him to recant.  He revoked the Obama-era moratorium on the use of private prisons and took part in various other nefarious criminal justice initiatives that could not be justified by humanism or by efficiency.

What is interesting about Barr is that he is not a younger politician. His record on criminal justice from the early days is appalling. And nonetheless, he has been able to look around him, notice that the world has changed, and assure Grassley that criminal justice reformers will find him cooperative and willing to listen to reason. I find a glimmer of hope in this. Old punitive dogs can, and do, learn new tricks sometimes.

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Thanks to Jodi Short for our conversation about this.

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