Ryan seen as ally to those seeking criminal justice reform
Proponents of criminal justice reform view new Speaker Paul Ryan as an ally, and see his ascension as a boost to the bipartisan push to overhaul decades-old sentencing and drug laws.
Lawmakers and advocates pushing reform legislation base their optimism on Ryan’s past proposals, the signals he has sent about the way he plans to run the House — and even the Wisconsin Republican’s age.
Members of both the House and the Senate told The Hill they believe Ryan’s election last week will help smooth legislation now pending before both chambers.
“It helps,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) “I think he’s sensitive to the issue and would be willing to look at sensible reform.”
Ryan included criminal justice and sentencing reforms in a sweeping anti-poverty plan he penned in 2014, when he served as chairman of the House Budget Committee. The proposal called for more flexibility within mandatory minimum guidelines judges use when sentencing non-violent drug offenders and for federal assistance in helping inmates re-enter society.
To the extent he decides to focus on the issue, Ryan could play an important role in bringing the issue to the floor this session.
“I know Paul has been a supporter of the concept over the years and so one would reasonably conclude it might be a little easier,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who himself has concerns about moving too aggressively on a criminal justice overhaul.
Advocates, meanwhile, are bullish on the prospect, saying Ryan’s history and experience all bode well for reform efforts.
“I think Paul Ryan sees it as something that’s part of a social fabric fix not just criminal justice reform,” said Kevin Ring, director of strategic initiatives at Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a group that’s fighting for sentencing reforms.
Danyelle Solomon, policy counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, said Ryan is uniquely positioned to become a leader on proposals that have failed to gain traction in recent years.
“With his time on the Budget and Ways and Means committees, he is well aware of the cost burden the system has on the federal budget,” she said. “Speaker Ryan has made positive comments about the need to address the criminal justice system and we’re excited to see movement.”
Ryan’s press secretary did not respond to requests for comment.
Two reform bills have been offered in the House: the SAFE Justice Reinvestment Act, introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). The latter legislation has also been introduces in the Senate and both bills have bipartisan support.
In his opening address to Congress last week, Ryan said the committees should “retake the lead in drafting all major legislation,” an approach that would empower
Goodlatte to move ahead with his legislation.
“Right now I wouldn’t think about Paul being the key player in that,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I think it would be the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.”
Though Scott noted that Ryan has been an advocate for relying heavily on research in drafting social policies — something he says his bill does — he admits Goodlatte’s legislation has a better chance of getting a vote in the House.
“I think it’s fair to say the bill number that reaches the floor with be Goodlatte’s bill,” he said. “The question is what gets added to it. There are a lot of provisions that would significantly improve the Goodlatte bill.”
In a statement to The Hill, Goodlatte said the Judiciary Committee is taking a step-by-step approach.
“There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that our criminal justice system is in need of reform and I am hopeful that reforms can be passed and enacted this Congress,” he said.
Reformers also draw hope from Ryan’s age. At 45, he’s two decades younger than the man he succeeded, former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“Younger members have a better sense of this issue and there is less of this binary ‘you tough on crime; me soft on crime,’” Ring said. “The younger guys aren’t burdened by the older fights, so they are freer to look at it in different ways.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to mark up Goodlatte’s bill soon, but no meeting has been scheduled yet.
Some lawmakers say they have reservations about the legislation, which reduces certain mandatory minimums for drug and repeat offenders. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said he prefers the Sensenbrenner-Scott bill, which focuses on sentencing alternatives, rehabilitation and prevention programs that aim to reduce crime.
“I would love to see that be the vehicle by which Congress does criminal justice reform,” he said.
But Johnson said he’d vote for the Goodlatte bill if it were the only option, saying any reform is a step in the right direction,
“It’s better than nothing,” he said.
Still, some like Chabot, worry that the push for reform might open the door for other more liberal initiatives like abolishing the death penalty, legalizing drugs and mass releases of criminals.
“If we can safely get folks out, I think that’s fine, but I think we really have a lot of folks that need to be there to keep the public safe,” he said. “So I want to make sure we don’t go too far in the direction of so-called reform that we make the American people less safe.”