Tom Cotton on the leniency-for-criminals legislation

Our friend Sen. Tom Cotton has written an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal opposing the latest jailbreak legislation that I discussed here. He argues:

[U]nder no circumstances should Congress cut mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes or give judges more discretion to reduce those sentences. That foolish approach is not criminal-justice reform—it’s a jailbreak that would endanger communities and undercut President Trump’s campaign promise to restore law and order.

Sen. Cotton points out first that this legislation comes at “exactly the wrong time.” According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017 more than 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, a 37 percent increase from 2015 and a nearly 100 percent increase since 2008.

Violent crime, he adds, has declined since the 1980s because mandatory minimums adopted then locked up violent criminals. But in 2015-16, the most recent years for which full data are available, violent crime increased at its fastest rate in a quarter-century.

These increases coincide with a 16 percent decline in the federal inmate population since 2013. That population now sits at its lowest level since 2004. With drug deaths and violent crime rising and the prison population falling, it makes no sense to legislate a jailbreak now.

To do so, Sen. Cotton contends, ignores the obvious problem of recidivism. He notes:

Five out of six prisoners end up rearrested within nine years, according to a recent Justice Department study. In fact, on average reoffenders are rearrested five times—and not for minor crimes. Only a handful of ex-convicts return to prison exclusively for parole violations, whereas 77% of drug offenders are rearrested for serious nondrug crimes, such as murder and rape.

Most criminals will commit more crimes after being released from prison, even with improved rehabilitation programs. The last thing Congress should do is shorten their sentences or allow them to “serve time” in home confinement.

Next, Sen. Cotton takes on the arguments made by proponents of the leniency legislation. They maintain that we need to end “mass incarceration.” He calls this “a curious characterization when less than half of crimes are even reported to police and more than 80% of property crimes and 50% of violent crimes that are reported go unsolved, according to Pew Research Center.” “Tell those victims denied justice that the U.S. locks up too many criminals,” he dares proponents of leniency legislation.

Perhaps Tom has been reading my long series on America’s under incarceration problem.

Proponents also contend that it’s unjust to mete out tough sentences to low-level, non-violent drug offenders. But, as Sen Cotton responds:

Virtually no one goes to federal prison for “low-level, nonviolent” drug offenses, especially mere drug use or possession. In 2015, there were 247 inmates in federal prison for drug possession. In these rare cases, the inmates usually pleaded down from a more serious offense.

In the extreme case of a manifestly unjust sentence, the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions. President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases.

Too willing, I say. But that discussion is for another day.

Finally, Sen. Cotton makes short work of the argument that we need leniency legislation because America spends too much on prisons:

[T]he Bureau of Prisons costs taxpayers less than $8 billion a year, or about 0.2% of the entire federal budget. After national security, the government’s most basic responsibility is to protect its citizens from crime. The costs of crime and disorder—personal and economic—far outweigh the downsides of putting serious criminals behind bars.

The latest leniency legislation has plenty of momentum, thanks to a bizarre coalition that includes, congressional Democrats, Sen. Charles Grassley, Jared Kushner, Kim Kardashian, and Van Jones. I hope that, with Tom Cotton standing strong against this rush to undo policies that have helped produce a remarkable reduction in serious crime, the train can be stopped short of its dangerous destination.

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