Why the GOP Is Ready to Go Easy on Drug Offenders

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 6 2014 6:04 PM

Forgive and Forget

On drug sentencing, a growing number of Republicans are ready to shed the party’s law-and-order image in favor of reform.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to the press outside after listening to President Obama speak about poverty during an event in the White House on January 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is pushing reforms in drug sentencing. Above, Paul speaks to the press on Jan. 9, 2014, in Washington.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Rand Paul had been talking for 20 minutes, strumming all the familiar chords. He was the gala keynoter for the annual American Principles Project, a 5-year-old social conservative group best known recently for running TV ads against Liz Cheney. (The ads, funded by APP’s political arm, attacked Cheney’s advocacy for “government benefits for gay couples.”) Paul had criticized the New York Times, defended the now-lapsed cuts of sequestration, and warned that a “Republican-lite” party was doomed to lose. Standard stuff.

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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

So he started challenging the crowd. “As Christians, we believe in forgiveness,” said Paul. “I think the criminal justice system should have some element of forgiveness.” There are, sure, human terrors who need to be locked up. “But there are also people who make youthful mistakes who I believe deserve a second chance. In my state, you never vote again if you’re convicted of a felony. But a felony could be growing marijuana plants in college. Friend of mine’s brother did 30 years ago. He has an MBA. But he can’t vote, can’t own a gun, and he’s a house-painter with an MBA, because he has to check a box saying he’s a convicted felon.”

Paul’s audience, consisting of social conservatives, congressional candidates, and radio hosts, listened or nodded along.

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“These are ideas not many Republicans have talked about before,” Paul said. “I think if we talk about these ideas, we take them to the minority community, often the African-American and sometimes the Hispanic community—3 out of 4 people in prison are black and brown! But if you look at surveys on who uses drugs, whites and blacks and Hispanic use at about the same rate. You don’t have as good an attorney if you don’t have money. Some of the prosecution has tended to go where it’s easier to prosecute people.”

The crowd stayed with him.

“I think these are things we should look at. I’m not talking about legalization. I’m talking about making the criminal justice system fair and giving people a second chance if they served their time,” Paul said.

That line earned a long burst of applause. Paul was in no danger of losing this crowd. Conservatives were ready to talk about lighter sentences for some criminals and for the restoration of felons’ rights. Just one week earlier, the Senate Judiciary Committee had approved the Smarter Sentencing Act, co-sponsored by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. If signed by the president, it would slash the 30-year-old mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Ten-year sentences would become five-year sentences. Five-year sentences would shrink to two years.

Every Democrat had voted “aye”—as had three of the committee’s eight Republicans. The bill isn’t as far-reaching as Paul’s own Justice Safety Valve bill, but it’s moving, and there’s already companion legislation waiting in the House. The most partisan Congress in anybody’s memory may actually come together to go easier on nonviolent drug offenders.

Both parties are raring for it. In a subtle kind of way, they’re racing to take credit for it, too. In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, shrinking the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences from 100–1 to 18–1. In 2013, the re-elected Obama administration started talking more openly about sentencing reform. “The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old,” Attorney General Eric Holder told NPR last year. “There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”

Holder, who’s been officially censured by the Republican House of Representatives, suffered no talk radio/outrage machine/political backlash for his message. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is being heavily lobbied to change standards, now consists mostly of Obama appointees. Even the conservative appointees like William H. Pryor Jr., whose judicial nomination was filibustered by Democrats for two years, are advocates for reform.

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