In the wake of the Justice Department’s findings regarding the Ferguson, Missouri, police, it has become even clearer that criminal justice reforms are needed, both to address inequality and to achieve greater efficacy. No policy is a panacea, but one frequently discussed reform would do away with federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenses. Such a move would grant more leeway to judges, and also help curtail prison overpopulation (My dad was a state correctional officer; this is a serious and dangerous problem.)
The good news is that a wave of young conservative leaders has been pushing for a variety of reforms to address problems that, in many cases, disproportionately affect the African-American community.
The bad news it that these conservatives have a formidable adversary: Their elders.
When word leaked last month the Smarter Sentencing Act would be reintroduced, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, 81, wasted little time in going nuclear. “It is a fact that the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences that Congress put in place for distributing drugs to benefit terrorists or terrorist organizations,” he said.
The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act included Republicans Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Jeff Flake as co-sponsors—hardly the sort to want to help fund terrorists. But this isn’t a new line for Grassley, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and it isn’t clear whether the terrorist line is a sincere (albeit wrongheaded and crank-ish) concern, or merely a way to kill reform.
As The New York Times recently editorialized, Grassley “for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data, has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences.” (Grassley responded with a letter to the editor, once again raising the argument that a reduction in federal mandatory minimum sentences would somehow help fund terrorists.)
According to Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy analyst for the conservative Right on Crime, the generational divide—not the partisan divide—is the issue. “It is true that Senator Grassley has expressed skepticism about the Cruz-Lee proposals, but it is also true that Dianne Feinstein voted against last year’s Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act," Reddy said. “Senators Grassley and Feinstein have very little in common, but they do share a generation: They are both exactly 81 years old.”
Meanwhile, the loudest voices for criminal justice reform in Congress are members of Generation X: Mike Lee is 43, Ted Cruz is 44, and Cory Booker is 45.
But Reddy doesn’t want to bash his elders just for the sport of it. There is, he insists, a perfectly good explanation for the generational divide: Grassley and Feinstein came of age in an era of high crime.
In 1963, New York City was known as the ‘murder capital of the nation.’ A Time Magazine cover with the caption ‘The Rotting of The Big Apple’ portrayed the muggings, robberies, and murders for which New York—and Times Square in particular—had become notorious. Small business owner Bernie Goetz became a vigilante icon when he shot four teenage subway muggers in 1985. Movies like Serpico, Taxi Driver, and Dirty Harry depicted crime-ridden urban environments in which chaos ruled.
Reddy also reminds me that Dianne Feinstein was the first to find Supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Mascone after they had been murdered in 1978.
It would be a mistake to assume this was only an issue in places like New York and San Francisco—or that this was merely a “dog whistle” issue Richard Nixon manufactured to win Middle America’s votes. After the riots of the 1960s, crime was a real national issue.
But the violent crime rate has consistently dropped in recent decades, and many reformers believe the pendulum has swung too far. “We may be at the point where high levels of incarceration are themselves ‘criminogenic,’ meaning that they actually cause more crime than they prevent, because extremely lengthy prison stays produce high recidivism rates,” says Reddy.
It would be a mistake to return to the bad old days of being soft on crime, but it would also be foolish to fail to adapt to changing times. Rather than resting on our laurels, we should continue to tweak and fix problems. Bipartisan agreement is rare in Washington, and it would be a shame to scuttle one of the few areas where conservative reformers have a real opportunity to do well by doing good.
... And they might have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling codgers.
Note: Matt Lewis's wife formerly consulted on Ted Cruz's Senate campaign.