WASHINGTON — Even with midterm prospects running high, Republicans are pinning their party’s long-term hopes on the over 2.4 million prisoners living behind bars in the United States. To win their votes, members of the GOP are reluctantly softening their positions on mandatory minimum sentences.
For over two decades many Republicans have run under a “tough on crime” banner, attempting to outdo their competitors by imposing especially draconian sentencing laws designed to keep criminals off the street. Now prominent Republicans are breaking free from their self-imposed electoral shackles.
Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry took to CPAC earlier this month to plead for lighter sentences and the hiring of ex-convicts.
While he agrees with Perry in the broad sense, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn raised questions about the motives of his fellow Republicans.
“I’d like to say that people wanted to keep hope on the idea that people, once they committed crimes, could be rehabilitated and become productive citizens,” said Cornyn. “Actually, what I think happened, the more likely explanation, was that we built so many prisons people began to ask the question: ‘Can we afford this?’
“And I’m not talking dollars and cents here. I’m talking about our viability as a party,” continued Cornyn. “Look at Texas. Soon the GOP’s base of white non-felons will become a minority in the state. Short of comprehensive immigration reform to win over the Hispanic community directly, we’ve got to go gangbusters on winning over the convict vote.”
By targeting the prison population, Cornyn and likeminded caucus members hope this strategy will eventually make inroads with minorities, as well. Blacks and Hispanics are dramatically overrepresented in the prison population. Black males are nearly six times as likely to be locked up as white males.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio described the situation as, “A jailbird in the GOP’s hand is worth two in a cell.” Aside from the federal penal system being “a really inefficient use of resources,” Portman warned that with current policy, “you end up with people not reaching their God-given potential” as Republican voters.
While their reasons differ, Republicans and Democrats are now working together to advance a broad criminal justice bill that would grant judges more sentencing discretion and provide more skills-training and early releases to low-risk offenders.
Said one GOP operative, “I think we can get this bill done without the Supreme Court needing to weigh in on the benefit to the GOP of hanging Chad [Smith],” a convict awaiting execution in Texas.