With the presidential race the focus of most of the media attention, a major division among Senate Republicans over so-called “criminal justice reform” has gotten little attention. But the liberal media are now beginning to notice that conservatives are mounting a campaign to stop a piece of legislation that has been advertised as a major part of President Obama’s left-wing legacy.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123) would release thousands of criminals back on the streets at a time of rising crime rates, in the name of reducing what liberals call “mass incarceration.”
In a major story on the new developments, The New York Times noted that the effort to pass the bill “has been driven by an unusual right-left alliance that includes the conservatives Charles G. and David H. Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union,” but that Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has now taken a strong leadership role against the bill.
In fact, the Koch brothers are libertarians, not conservatives.
Cotton told the Times, “I don’t believe we should allow thousands of violent felons to be released early from prison, nor do I believe we should reduce sentences for violent offenders in the future.”
A key development has been a triple murder committed by a convicted crack cocaine dealer who was back on the streets because his prison sentence on drug charges had already been reduced twice. The crimes were committed in Columbus, Ohio, and are now starting to get national media attention.
The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) reports that Wendell L. Callahan, who is charged with killing his ex-girlfriend and two of her children, twice benefited from changes in federal sentencing guidelines, which reduced his sentence by a total of more than four years. His ex-girlfriend, Erveena Hammonds, 32, and her daughters, Breya Hammonds, 7, and Anaesia Green, 10, were viciously stabbed to death.
The publication Politico cited the triple murder case as a major complicating factor in the effort to pass the bill.
A conservative organization called Americans for Limited Government is leading opposition to the bill, taking issue with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) for working with Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) to pass the controversial legislation.
The Times said, “Some analysts have suggested that it could help Republicans by broadening their appeal to independents, Democrats and minorities who believe that the criminal justice system is unfairly tilted.”
Cornyn seemed to accept this, telling the paper that Republicans should support the legislation to show that they care about people in prison and want to give them a second chance. “It doesn’t hurt to show that you actually care,” he said. “This is a statement that is not just symbolic, but actually shows that you care about people. It doesn’t hurt to show some empathy.”
Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning countered, “Senator John Cornyn, whose sense of empathy must have developed at Washington, D.C. cocktail parties, should prove he truly cares for people whose neighborhoods have been ravaged by drugs and violent crimes by moving to one of those neighborhoods so he can see for himself the impact of releasing early thousands of hardened drug kingpins and violent criminals back on to the streets of America. Senator Cornyn’s ‘empathetic’ conscience needs to meet the reality of the street, where a 77 percent recidivism rate amongst released prisoners is the norm, with 25 percent of those crimes being violent in nature.”
The alleged killer in the Columbus case was released early from prison because Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced sentences for those in prison for dealing crack cocaine and directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to amend federal sentencing guidelines to let drug dealers out of prison at an earlier date.
President Obama supports the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act legislation, as do many in the liberal media anxious to see a piece of “bipartisan” legislation pass and become a part of the Obama legacy.
In addition to Senators Cornyn and Lee pushing the Senate bill, Politico had previously reported that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) wanted the GOP to pass “criminal justice reform” in early 2016, and that he had said, “I think criminal justice reform is probably the biggest [issue] we can make a difference on… There’s a real way forward on that.”
Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning called Ryan’s plan a “risky mass criminal release scheme” that comes at a time when “police are overwhelmed with record murders in cities like Baltimore and Chicago.”
There were 342 murders in Baltimore in 2015, an all-time high. There were 468 murders in Chicago, compared to 416 in 2014.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission had announced in July of 2014 that it was launching a plan to release 46,290 drug offenders from federal prisons.
Obama is already in the process of releasing 6,000 drug dealers from prison in what The New York Times calls “one of the largest discharges of inmates from federal prisons in American history.” Last December he issued 95 commutations, mostly to drug offenders.
On the Columbus Dispatch Facebook page, one citizen commented, “For all of you who thought Prez O [Obama] was so compassionate when he pushed for letting drug dealers out of prison early, well what do you think of Prez Hope and Change now?”
The Columbus Dispatch said that the alleged killer “likely would have been deep into a 12 1/2-year federal prison sentence if sentencing guidelines for convicted crack dealers had remained unchanged.” It added that “The changes to his federal sentence came as part of retroactive attempts by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to rectify sentencing disparities between dealers who sold crack and those who dealt powdered cocaine.”
A local citizen wrote to the paper to note, “Hammonds and her daughters should be living examples of how harsh sentences against drug dealers and violent criminals protect our welfare. Instead, they’ll be laid to rest as examples of a broken system.”
Despite the murders, liberal pressure groups are demanding that the Senate Republican majority pass S. 2123. In a release headlined, “Civil and Human Rights Coalition Urges Senate Republicans to Stay the Course on Sentencing Reform in 2016,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, referred to “recent reports” about divisions among Senate Republicans and urged the Senate GOP conference “to stay the course on passing a sentencing reform package in 2016.” The Senate Republican Conference is the organization of Republican members in the U.S. Senate and is chaired by Senator John Thune of South Dakota. Thune has been quoted as saying that criminal justice reform has a “better than 50/50” shot of passing Congress and reaching Obama’s desk.
“The window of opportunity is here,” said Henderson. He claimed passage of the “bipartisan bill” and Obama’s willingness to sign it into law “is a rare chance to show the country that Washington can both reduce the size of government and protect its citizens all at once.”
The phrase “reducing the size of government” means cutting the cost of prisons. But the idea of “protecting” people by releasing criminals doesn’t make a lot of sense to law-and-order conservatives and the public at-large.
Cliff Kincaid is the Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism and can be contacted at [email protected].