CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Paul Ryan’s newest proposal to address poverty in part by defunding existing federal programs to help the poor hasn’t earned him any endorsements from the left. But scroll down to the bottom and there’s something in there for progressives. On criminal justice, Ryan quietly shifted his position to endorse bipartisan, progressive reform including moves to reform draconian drug sentences, and policies that ease re-entry from prison.
In his proposal, Ryan acknowledges a dramatic link between criminal justice and economic mobility, noting that a criminal record can be an onerous hurdle to employment — one that is racially skewed. He endorses several sentencing reforms, including a bipartisan bill to ease draconian drug prison terms, and to eliminate racially disparate sentences for crack and powder cocaine sentences. He also calls for improved rehabilitation programs for prisoners, and opportunities to earn credits for early release from prison.
“The punishment should fit the crime, but in many cases the punishment of incarceration extends beyond prison time,” Ryan’s plan states. “Once people have paid their debt to society, they should be able to move on.”
Ryan hasn’t always held this opinion. In 2007, he voted against a bill that would have eased convicted offenders’ re-entry from prison into society. And he also voted against bills to reform juvenile prosecutions and provide alternatives to sentencing in 1999 and 2000.
But Ryan professed a recent about-face, citing a trip to visit a drug rehabilitation facility, as well as a shifting collective “understanding” of the damage caused by some draconian criminal laws.
“It just became clear to me that there are better ways for dealing with nonviolent criminals, to helping them get back on their feet, to pay their debt to society, and lead productive lives and be rehabilitated, than the current system we have today,” he told the Washington Post.
“I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges,” Ryan told the Daily Beast, citing his support for the Smarter Sentencing Act now pending in Congress and co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). “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.”
Ryan is not exactly leading the conservative movement on criminal justice reform, but it does lend even more heft to the overwhelming call to address U.S. mass incarceration.
In addition to Sens. Lee and Durbin, several others introduced a second bipartisan bill to reform sentencing, including Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Analogous bipartisan bills are pending in the House. What’s more, the prominent conservative corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council became an outspoken supporter of state sentencing reform last summer, after years of advocating for mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws. On the law enforcement front, judges, prosecutors, and even the world’s largest correctional association have come out in support of sentencing reform.