WASHINGTON — For decades the Republican Party prided itself for being tough on crime, often putting Democrats on the defensive by pushing for longer, mandatory sentences for convicts.
In 1988, that hard-line stance helped sink the presidential dreams of then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who was blamed in Republican TV ads for having released convicted killer Willie Horton as part of a weekend furlough program. (Horton failed to return after a furlough and went on to commit robbery and rape.)
But now, as the U.S. Senate prepares to take up the most far-reaching changes in years to federal sentencing and parole guidelines, some conservative Republicans are flipping sides, driven by concerns about the rising cost of caring for prisoners and calls for compassion from conservative religious groups seeking to rehabilitate convicts.
A surprising number of high-profile Republicans are working arm in arm with Democrats on legislation to shorten jail terms and hasten prisoner releases. At the same time, in their own reversal of sorts, key Democrats are arguing against the legislation in its current form.
“It’s a little counterintuitive,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a conservative former judge who is co-sponsoring a proposal to let tens of thousands of inmates out of federal prisons early if they complete rehabilitation programs.
Though prison sentencing was once a clear divide between the parties, politics around the issue have shifted in recent years, blurring old lines, he said. “This is one of those subjects there isn’t any clear partisan divide on,” Cornyn said in an interview.
Now that the drug-fueled crime wave that began in the 1960s and lasted through the early 1980s has abated, public opinion polls indicate that crime ranks well below the economy and other issues on the public’s list of concerns.
But mandatory-minimum prison sentences and other tough-on-crime measures passed during that era have led to a surge in prison populations in state and federal facilities, causing costs to skyrocket. There has been an 800% increase in the federal prison population in the last 30 years, gobbling up a third of the Justice Department budget.
As a result of the growth, deficit hawks in the Republican Party began to rethink the issue. Nearly a third of the states, led by conservative Texas, have passed reforms to relax their sentencing laws in the past several years.
“Republican governors are seeing that they have to do something about corrections costs,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in an interview.
At the same time, evangelical Christians, partly led by the prison ministries set up by Watergate felon Chuck Colson, are helping to make the once-discredited goal of prisoner rehabilitation popular with the religious right.
“The ‘lock them up and throw the key far away from you’” philosophy of old has gotten politically stale, Whitehouse said.
As soon as this month, the Senate is expected to take up legislation that combines two bills that easily passed the Judiciary Committee. One cuts in half mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and the other makes it easier to win early release. The combined measure would also make retroactive a 2010 law that reduced sentences for those previously convicted of possessing crack cocaine.
The legislation has attracted strong support from Republican conservatives such as Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. “I think it’s a mistake for people to assume that all conservatives or all Republicans have the same view in this regard, that we should kill them all and let God sort it out,” said Paul Larkin, a criminal justice expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Sentencing nonviolent offenders to decades in prison is “costly, not only in dollars but also the people involved,” Larkin said. “Sending someone to prison for a long time is tantamount to throwing that person away.”
But the new politics of crime remain complicated, with some old-line Republicans still opposed to the proposals. “Do we really want offenders like these out on the streets earlier than is the case now, to prey on our citizens?” Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley said in a recent Senate speech, referring to the bill to ease mandatory-minimum sentences. Grassley, however, supports the early-release proposal.
In a twist, some key Democrats are also opposed to the efforts to relax mandatory minimums and allow early releases, while others remain on the fence. Facing a Republican campaign to seize control of the Senate this fall, Democrats are concerned about appearing soft on crime, a vulnerability that has haunted them in the past.
At least five Senate Democrats are fighting for their political lives in November, and proponents of the measures are not sure how many of them might vote against the bills, possibly jeopardizing passage.
“The ghost of Willie Horton has loomed over any conversation about sentencing reform for over 30 years,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), cosponsor with Lee of the mandatory-minimum cuts. Even Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has voiced concerns about some aspects of the early releases, though he is a champion of the legisaltion overall. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), another senior member, is also opposed to the current proposal. And Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a liberal Democrat from New York who for years has cultivated a tough-on-crime profile, is working to diminish some of the reductions in mandatory sentences.
Feinstein objected to the bill because it would allow the early release of prisoners who complete certain rehabilitation programs with no individual assessment of how dangerous a prisoner might be.
But Durbin predicted that changes to his bill currently being negotiated with Schumer and Republicans would lead to passage of the package in the Senate.
Legislation to make some of the same changes has also been introduced on a bipartisan basis in the House. But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) has so far taken a go-slow approach, using a task force — which he said will continue to meet for months — to examine the issues.