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Right on Crime | September 4, 2018
This article by former Arkansas Governor and Right on Crime signatory Mike Huckabee originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette September 1, 2018.
In 2014, I endorsed then-Representative Tom Cotton to be the next U.S. Senator to the great state of Arkansas. I still stand by this decision. Senator Cotton has represented Arkansas well. However, there is one issue on which I must strongly disagree with the Senator: criminal justice reform.
Last month, Senator Cotton published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining his strong opposition to Congress’ attempts to pass meaningful prison and sentencing reform. He argues that sentencing reform is soft on crime and that the United States, with over 1 million people serving sentences in state or federal prisons, has an under-incarceration problem.
On the issue of criminal justice reform, my friend Sen. Cotton has dearly missed the mark.
When I was governor of Arkansas, the Arkansas Department of Correction director, Larry Norris, used to tell me, “We lock up a lot of people that we are mad at, rather than the ones we are afraid of.”
I learned a lot from being responsible for the corrections system in my state for almost 11 years, and there is a reason that most conservative Republican governors are taking a lead role in reforming a system that isn’t working. The federal government currently locks up nonviolent offenders for decades, and sometimes life, at an enormous cost to the taxpayers. Empirical evidence, not liberal talking points, show conclusively that lengthy, rigid, one-size-fits-all sentences do not make us safer and did not cause the crime decline our country has enjoyed over the last 30 years.
Luckily, the Senate, with President Trump’s support, is working on adding sentencing reform provisions to the House-passed FIRST STEP Act, a prison reform bill. These sentencing provisions will ensure we save limited prison resources for those we are afraid of, not those we are mad at.
The sentencing reforms on the table are limited, modest, and don’t get rid of mandatory minimum sentences. Rather, they bring balance and sanity to some federal sentencing laws that produce unjust and absurd results too often. Under current federal law, defendants can face half a century for selling drugs in their living room and having a firearm in their bedroom. I do not endorse drug distribution, but a tactic known as “stacking” allows prosecutors to treat (and ultimately sentence) first-time, low-level offenders as if they were Pablo Escobar. The “stacking” reforms being considered would give people their just deserts, not an absurd punishment.
Under current federal law, we also lock up drug dealers for life without parole with no hope for release, save for the mercy of our president. Granted, these drug dealers are repeat offenders, but life without parole should be reserved for people who commit mass murders or engage in police killings. Locking away nonviolent drug dealers for life is not only a waste of our taxpayer dollars and prison resources, it makes a mockery of the seriousness of violent offenses that do deserve a lifetime in prison. Again, no one is suggesting leniency for repeat drug offenders, merely balance. Current proposals would reduce the mandatory life without parole sentence to a mandatory minimum of 25 years–still a very long sentence by any rational person’s measurement.
At an average of about $33,000 per year per inmate, over-the-top sentences are simply not cutting it. They are not reducing crime in a meaningful way. As a conservative, if the federal government is going to spend my money, they better have something to show for it. Conservative states like Georgia, South Carolina, Iowa, Mississippi, and Louisiana have all reduced, repealed, or reformed their mandatory minimum sentencing laws and are proof that you can shrink prisons and cut spending without sacrificing public safety.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I support sentencing reform as a man of faith.
As a nation of laws, we should hold offenders accountable. But as a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values, we should be able to temper our justice system with mercy. The mandatory minimums described above, and many more like them, affect not only the person serving the sentence, but also that person’s family, neighborhood, community, and church.
Senator Cotton is unfortunately out of step with the evidence, the times, and his party’s values on criminal justice reform. Criminal justice reform is fully in line with the conservative values of our state, and Senator Cotton should support President Trump’s efforts to have a criminal justice reform bill on his desk this year.