Opinion: Daily Journal

Criminal-justice reform offers rare chance for bipartisan success

Walker and Tillis reach out to Democrats for sound, responsible justice policies

Who says Republicans and Democrats can’t do good things together?

Discussions are under way between leaders of both parties in Congress seeking positive reforms in our criminal-justice system. This may be an outlier — an opportunity for Republican and Democrats, conservatives and liberals to bring new hope to men and women who need it while enhancing public safety and saving tax dollars in the process.

But even if it’s a one-off, it’s encouraging. And needed.

North Carolina stands to be a leader in the movement. Two of its most prominent federal officials head the charge.

The most recent development, reported by William Douglas of McClatchy newspapers, said N.C. Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican from the 6th District and chairman of the powerful Republican Study Committee, has joined on the issue with Rep. Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.

“Richmond and Walker agree the current criminal justice system negatively impacts families, particularly in communities of color, costs the federal government too much money, and does little to reduce the rate of recidivism,” the story said.

Positive news, indeed. Walker said he and Richmond are working on an op-ed article for December publication laying out their principles and goals. Walker added that the two hope to introduce legislation dealing with (among other issues) excessive mandatory sentencing policies in federal prisons, quite possibly for low-level, non-violent offenders.

“We want something that can really impact the legislative system like we haven’t seen in many years,” Walker told McClatchy. “We felt that if the chairmen of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Republican Study Committee can come together on something, it may create enough attention to say, ‘OK, maybe this is bigger than the political lingo that you hear out of D.C. every week.’”

On the other side of the Capitol, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis has kept criminal-justice reform among the top of his concerns. Early last year, Tillis introduced a bill modeled on many of the changes in North Carolina’s 2011 Justice Reinvestment Act — legislation Tillis personally championed as the new speaker of the state House.

As Carolina Journal reported at the time, his bill “would reduce prison sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders while increasing prison terms for violent criminals and adding two new mandatory minimum sentences. The legislation also seeks to reduce the number of repeat offenders by expanding education, job training, drug rehabilitation, and faith-based programs.”

Tillis takes the issue personally. As his reforms stalled in the Senate during the heat of the presidential campaign, the freshmen Republican vowed not to seek re-election in 2020 if the Senate failed to overhaul the broken criminal-justice system. “If we’re not able to get things like this done, I don’t have any intention of coming back,” he said last November.

The Justice Reinvestment Act and other reforms — including the plan compensating the surviving victims of the state’s horrific eugenics program and a new law raising the age many low-level juvenile offenders must enter the adult corrections system — have demonstrated bipartisan leadership at a time it’s sorely lacking.

The changes have provided opportunities for low-level lawbreakers who’ve done their time and pose no further threat to others to rejoin mainstream society. Become productive members of their communities. And be role models for other troubled people in similar circumstances.

They’ve also reinforced the American tradition of offering them redemption rather than relegating them to revolving prison doors. Second chances to those who want them.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration — in particular Attorney General Jeff Sessions — want nothing to do with these changes. Sessions has called for an expansion of harsh mandatory sentencing for drug offenses, even for simple possession or use; he’s revived civil-asset forfeiture, the heinous process allowing police to seize property and cash from people who are suspected of crimes but not convicted of them; and he’s reversed the Obama administration’s policy letting local law enforcement deal with low-level drug offenses in states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes (a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for pot in the states where it’s legal).

Walker and Tillis are defending a sound, conservative principle: Throwing more money at a problem may not solve it — and can make it worse.

The two Tar Heel Republicans deserve praise for pushing these unsexy policy issues forward. They’re risking political capital by standing up to a GOP administration and reaching out to Democrats in the process.

Let’s hope these aisle-crossing overtures result in safer, more efficient criminal-justice policies. And perhaps open the door, just a crack, for other productive bipartisan actions.