President Obama and some in Congress tell us our criminal justice system is "broken" — that we have too many people in prison for too long. They say the way forward lies in reducing the already declining federal inmate population — already at its lowest level in over a decade and still dropping.
To that end, the president and his allies are backing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) — legislation that would result in, among many other things, the early release of tens of thousands of violent drug traffickers and give judges broad leeway to parole those sentenced as juveniles regardless of the crime they committed.
Reformers have it exactly backward. Far from broken, our criminal justice system is one of the most successful domestic programs in the last 50 years. Crime is half what it was a generation ago, back in the days when we followed the path reformers advocate now. Then, a three decade-long crime wave had swept the nation. Crime ballooned by 400 percent. Whole neighborhoods in our major cities became drug dealing, free-fire zones. The changes we adopted in the late 1980s, including mandatory minimum sentencing and ending parole, didn't break the system; they repaired it. The SRCA's proposed "way forward" is really the way back — back, as Ronald Reagan would say, to the failed policies of the past. It's especially ironic that reformers want to put drug dealers back on the street earlier in the midst of a nationwide heroin epidemic and a shocking surge in murders.
It's no surprise that the most prominent law enforcement groups in the country oppose this legislation, including the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, FBI Agents Association, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, National Sheriffs Association, National Narcotics Officers Association, and the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council. Other leaders like Rudy Giuliani and John Ashcroft, along with five former heads of the DEA and over 40 former, high-ranking federal officials from the Justice Department and the FBI, have come out against the bill.
Reformers tend to tout a handful of sympathetic, outlier cases while whistling past the indisputable lesson of the last half century: more criminals in prison means less crime, while less criminals in prison means more crime. They also conflate the quite different state and federal criminal justice systems, arguing that state reforms can simply be air-dropped onto the much larger federal structure, with its high-level, more serious convicts. And they never divulge the failures of state reforms. In California, crime is spiraling out of control. The Texas governor recently called in the National Guard to Dallas to deal with the skyrocketing murder rate. And in Utah, the prison reform initiative has resulted in several murders, including the deaths of more than one police officer.
Reformers claim the SRCA will release only "low-level, nonviolent" offenders. But, as long experience shows, the drug trade is inherently violent. When Congress adopted more limited reform in 2010, it resulted in the early release of, among thousands of others, a crack cocaine dealer named Wendell Callahan. An attorney from the Obama Justice Department blandly assured the judge that Callahan did not present a danger to the community. Callahan then used his early release to knife to death his ex-girlfriend and two of her children, aged 7 and 10.
This is a gruesome illustration of the question sentencing reformers refuse to ask: If, as they claim, the government made thousands of mistakes about whom to imprison and for how long, how can we trust that same government to decide whom to release and how early?10 comments on this story
The truth is that “criminal justice reform” has been hijacked by the left in their effort to unlock the prison doors and impose other liberal policies like felon voting. It is Barack Obama's agenda and backed by extremists like Al Sharpton, George Soros, the ACLU and the SEIU. The Senate's leading conservatives — Orrin Hatch, Jeff Sessions, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, for example — all oppose the SRCA. And many other conservative voices have come out against the bill, including the Tea Party Patriots, Eagle Forum, Gun Owners of America, Americans for Limited Government and others.
The SRCA advances the wrong priorities. Our system for restraining activist and gullible judges has worked. This is no time to be forgetful about our past blunders and complacent about the hard work we had to do to make our country safer. To preserve our gains, we must defeat Obama’s “criminal justice reform.”
William G. Otis is adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.