Staff Columnist

Grassley sentencing proposal should be bipartisan no-brainer

Changing mandatory minimums would save taxpayers millions

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) meets with constituents in Sac City, Iowa, on April 20, 2017. (Jerry Mennenga/Zuma Press/TNS)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) meets with constituents in Sac City, Iowa, on April 20, 2017. (Jerry Mennenga/Zuma Press/TNS)

From the American Civil Liberties Union to the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, there’s a growing bipartisan consensus that the war on crime hasn’t worked.

Criminal justice reform proposals under consideration now in the Congress would be a start to fixing the problems created by tough-on-crime Republicans and Democrats over the past five decades. They also could be the most significant bipartisan policy accomplishment of the Trump era.

However, a sticking point has emerged over mandatory sentencing changes long-supported by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, which some conservative members of the U.S. House are skeptical of.

"The bill is tough on crime and focuses law enforcement efforts on the worst criminals."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa

Guest column: Sentencing reform will fight crime

President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner is leading the push for a prison reform deal, which has drawn a Republican and Democrat co-sponsor in the U.S. House, and interest from a diverse set of interest lobbyists.

“After years or even decades in prison, inmates often are disconnected from their families, have no place to live, lack relevant job skills, and need counseling for addiction or mental-health problems,” Kushner wrote in a message published last week.

Taxpayers foot an enormous bill for a corrections system which has demonstrated little ability to correct anything at all. It costs around $7 billion each year to house inmates, claiming a quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget.

The Kushner-backed bill, known as Collins-Jeffries in the House, would direct the Department of Justice to take up programs for reducing repeat offenses among released inmates. Grassley, however, says such programs will be less effective without the cost savings associated with his proposed changes to the government’s overbearing mandatory minimum sentence rules.

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Grassley’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is co-sponsored by more than a quarter of his Senate colleagues, and has support from interest groups like the ACLU and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on the left, along with FreedomWorks and the American Conservative Union on the right.

“The bill is tough on crime and focuses law enforcement efforts on the worst criminals. But it also promotes fairness in sentencing, especially for lower-level, non-violent offenders. Similar reforms at the state level have reduced crime, closed prisons and cut taxpayer costs,” Grassley wrote in a guest column published by The Gazette.

Even with the Grassley reforms in place, any federal bill would remain a modest response to the nation’s incarceration crisis.

In addition to federal prisoners, another 6.5 million people are incarcerated in local jails or serving probation or parole, and local jails generate $22 billion in expenses annually, according to federal estimates. Legislation from Washington D.C. would do nothing to address those expensive problems, but could serve as a model for state and local policymakers in the future.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world population, but about a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Either Americans are more criminal than the rest of the world, or we suffer from bad laws. I pick the latter.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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