Republicans Join Fight To Reduce Prison Terms For Drug Crimes

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A small group of advocates has been working for years to overhaul the criminal justice system — to dial back long sentences for drug crimes, and let nonviolent inmates out of prison early.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Something our correspondent Carrie Johnson said on this program a while back has stuck with me. She covers the Justice Department, and she told us in 2013 it was the best moment she'd seen in decades for the possibility of sentencing reform. People on the political left and the political right have been talking of cutting down on long prison terms. They have different reasons but are aiming at the same goal, and now an alliance is emerging. NPR's Carrie Johnson continues tracking this story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's been a head-spinning week in Washington on the criminal justice front. First came this from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, not known as a friend to criminal defendants.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JUSTICE ANHONY KENNEDY: This idea of total incarceration just isn't working, and it's not humane.

JOHNSON: Later today, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a top executive from Koch Industries will appear alongside leaders of the left-leaning Center for American Progress and the ACLU. All of them want Congress to follow a path already carved by many red states - to ease long prison sentences and put more resources into avoiding incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Mark Holden, the top lawyer at Koch, says the war on drugs has crowded prisons with little benefit to public safety.

MARK HOLDEN: At Koch, from a business perspective, if something isn't working, even though we did it for 20 or 30 years, we don't keep doing it. And I think we as, you know, people, citizens and our leaders, need to have the humility, the intellectual honesty and the courage to look at what we're doing and change course.

JOHNSON: The company came by its skeptical views of the system through firsthand contact. In 2001, Koch pleaded guilty to covering up environmental violations at a refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas - an experience that seared its top officials.

HOLDEN: If it's happening to a big company with a lot of resources, what's happening to small-business people? What's happening to kids and, you know, families, individuals who don't have the means, who don't have the resources we do?

CHRISTINE LEONARD: Nothing's ever easy, but I think we're a point right now where there's a lot of different elements that are there, starting with bipartisanship.

JOHNSON: Christine Leonard is a criminal justice policy veteran who once worked for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal icon from Massachusetts. She's now executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, herding members of that left-right partnership to try to overhaul the system.

LEONARD: They might not all be there for the same reasons, but I think that the fact that they're agreeing on the solution speaks volumes about the opportunity to get something done this year.

JOHNSON: Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, took to the Senate floor this month to drum up support for legislation that would give judges more discretion to impose lighter sentences. But Durbin couldn't help wondering how he and GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz wound up on the same side.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: Durbin and Cruz on the same bill? As the saying goes around here, obviously one of us hasn't read it.

JOHNSON: For Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, glaring racial disparities in the system are reasons enough for change. Here's Booker talking on the Senate floor recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Let's be clear. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers in our country are white, but three-quarters of all the people incarcerated for drug offenses are black and Latino.

JOHNSON: On the other side of the political aisle, Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and John Cornyn of Texas are also advancing criminal justice legislation this year. But there's still resistance from their fellow Republican, who happens to lead the Judiciary Committee. Iowa's Charles Grassley recently took issue with the rhetoric coming from reform advocates.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: Their major ploy is to paint a picture that poor, innocent mere drug possessors are crowding our prisons.

JOHNSON: Grassley says hardly anyone is in federal prison for simply possessing drugs, but he said he wasn't entirely opposed to dialing back some tough-on-crime measures as long as lawmakers are willing to do more to fight the scourge of heroin, possibly leaving some room to make a deal. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.