Texas Conservatives Lead Reassessment of ‘War on Crime’

Post Date: March 23, 2014

(Houston Chronicle) — There was a time when Texas conservatives like U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a former judge and state attorney general, used to tout their tough-on-crime credentials, much like in the cowboy-themed 2008 campaign video, “Big Bad John.”

Now Cornyn and many other Republicans across the country are singing a different tune on crime and punishment – this time invoking costs, redemption and second chances.

“We tried the lock ’em all up and keep them locked up philosophy, but sooner or later many of these folks are going to be released from prison,” Cornyn said in an interview. “Traditional criminal justice policy called for rehabilitation to be one of the elements of our criminal justice system, but we kind of forgot about that.”

Some traditional conservatives have come to the view that treatment and rehabilitation programs – long the province of liberal prison reformers – cost a fraction of mandating long, hard time, and have shown better results with low-level offenders, particularly drug offenders, who make up about half of all federal inmates.

The upshot is a pair of broadly-backed criminal justice reform bills in the Senate – one with Cornyn’s name on it – now being hailed as a major transformation in a failed criminal justice system. Even in an election year of a famously gridlocked Congress, Cornyn and others give the legislation a better than even chance of getting to President Barack Obama’s desk this year.

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, introduced by Cornyn and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., would provide early releases to low-risk federal inmates who go through job training, education and drug treatment programs, something Texas has been doing for years. It could be paired with the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, , which would give judges more discretion and scale back minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, has yet to fully climb on board with the Durbin bill reducing mandatory sentences, but he said “I’m more than happy to continue the conversation.” Read more