Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Sen. Tom Cotton, the bipartisan congressional effort to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug felonies, and to release many drug felons from jail, is on hold in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for what Politico calls “a breather of sorts on the bill,” so that Republican Senators can examine the issue more closely.
Sen. John Cornyn is using this time to press his fellow Senate Republicans hard in favor of the lenient sentencing legislation he is co-sponsoring, the passage of which is a core agenda of President Obama for his final year in office. But why?
Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, points out that Cornyn has consistently opposed such legislation in the past:
What is truly remarkable is that while in the Senate minority, Cornyn argued vociferously against early criminal release in 2011 when the sentencing commission implemented retroactive sentencing reductions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
And again in 2014 when the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 was proposed, the precursor of the current legislation, Cornyn objected citing the nation’s “historic heroin epidemic” and warning of tens of thousands of “additional murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, thefts, auto thefts, and incidents of arson.” If anything, the rise of the use of heroin has become more endemic since 2014, and the streets more dangerous.
Moreover, Cornyn all but scoffed at the pet argument of Team Leniency, whose ranks he has now joined, namely that only “non-violent” drug offenders would get lighter sentences. He wrote:
The notion that drug traffickers are non-violent is simply incorrect. Among other factors, disputes over [drug] money cannot be settled with a lawsuit. Violence and threats are the norm.
Why the about-face? Manning notes that Cornyn is leaning on the idea of empathy. He told the New York Times:
It doesn’t hurt to show that you actually care. This is a statement that is not just symbolic, but actually shows that you care about people. It doesn’t hurt to show some empathy.
Until recently, John Cornyn likely would have been among the first to point out that empathy should be directed in the first instance to the victims of rampant drug crime — those who live the neighborhoods most affected. As Manning puts it:
Senator Cornyn, whose sense of empathy must have developed at Washington, D.C. cocktail parties, should prove he truly cares for people whose neighborhoods have been ravaged by drugs and violent crimes by moving to those one of those neighborhoods so he can see for himself the impact of releasing early thousands of hardened drug kingpins and violent criminals back on to the streets of America.
Senator Cornyn’s “empathetic” conscience needs to meet the reality of the street, where a 77 percent recidivism rate amongst released prisoners is the norm, with 25 percent of those crimes being violent and nature.
The question persists, though: why did Sen. Cornyn flip on this issue? What happened to John Cornyn?