Washington — It’s rare, as a member of the Democratic minority in the U.S. House, to play a significant role in pushing major legislation to approval, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, acknowledged this week.
Rare, but for him, he said, not unprecedented: He teamed up with Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, in the House, along with other members of the Louisiana delegation in Congress, to pass revisions to federal flood insurance regulations in 2014 in order to protect property owners from huge increases in their premiums.
But Richmond’s latest bipartisan engagement involves a much wider coalition, from a broad geographical and philosophical spectrum. The subject is criminal justice reform, and the House took a major step forward on that issue this month when the Judiciary Committee approved a package of bills.
The highlight is a measure that eliminates mandatory life sentences for third-time nonviolent federal drug offenders, substituting a 25-year sentence, and reduces the “second strike” mandatory minimum from 25 years to 20 years. It would apply retroactively, except to offenders convicted of violent felonies who have served 13 months or more in prison.
The bill passed the committee unanimously, and a similar bill has won approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Criminal justice reform also is backed by Democratic President Barack Obama.
“We have so many young males and people incarcerated that should be out,” Richmond said. “And we’ve never looked at it from the standpoint of the cost and does this make sense.
“We have to educate the public that we are past the point of diminishing returns,” he said. “Every dollar that we spend on incarceration is displacing another dollar that could make the country safer.”
Outside interests advocating reforms range from the Koch brothers on the right to the American Civil Liberties Union on the left.
Among Republicans in Congress, supporters include libertarians concerned with fairness and fiscal conservatives worried about skyrocketing spending as the number of federal prisoners has spiked from fewer than 25,000 in 1980 to more than 200,000 today, in part because of mandatory sentences adopted in the “war on drugs.”
Leading Democratic supporters include several black members of Congress, such as Richmond, who are troubled by disproportionately high rates of incarceration for African-Americans.
The war on drugs and the three-strikes-you’re-out laws it generated have taken a toll on the African-American community, and on black males especially, Richmond said.
“Race comes into play in charging decisions, who gets in and does not get into diversion programs and how much time you get (in prison),” Richmond said.
“I would love to say that none of it is intentional, but I’m sure that some of it is. And then some of its systematic.
“We have to work very hard to root out the systematic elements.”
Richmond hopes to tackle the causes of the disparity in additional legislation. He’s also the lead co-sponsor of a bill by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, that seeks to improve programs to reduce recidivism; Richmond said the Judiciary Committee may take up that legislation next month.
Richmond was first elected to Congress in 2010, the year of the tea party wave that gave Republicans a House majority they still hold. Early this year, he began meeting with several Republicans and Democrats to talk about advancing criminal-justice reform, and that working group evolved in July into the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus, with Richmond, Chaffetz, hard-right Republican Raul Labrador, of Idaho, and Congressional Black Caucus member Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, serving as co-chairmen.
Scalise, who ranks No. 3 in the House leadership as majority whip, also endorses the reform drive.
“There’s a growing bipartisan consensus that we can make our criminal justice system more effective and efficient while punishing criminals and keeping our communities safe,” Scalise said in a statement issued by his office. “I’m glad that members of Congress — including conservatives and members of the Congressional Black Caucus — are working to address this issue together in a bipartisan way.”
Scalise said he will use his position as whip “to build support for smart conservative reforms like this.”
The reform initiative — and the unusually broad coalition supporting it — mirror efforts in several states, including Louisiana. In some ways, Richmond said, Louisiana officials are ahead of their federal counterparts in addressing the issue.
The Nov. 21 victory by state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, in the governor’s election raises the hopes of reformers, as Edwards has said he’s less than thrilled with Louisiana’s status as the No. 1 state in the nation in terms of the percentage of the population incarcerated. The incumbent governor, Republican Bobby Jindal, has been tepid on reform, while agreeing not to oppose recent legislative moves.
The Louisiana Legislature earlier this year set up a task force to study criminal-justice reform, with an emphasis on data-driven, evidence-based approaches that echoes federal strategies. The task force is scheduled to begin work in March, conducting research that could bear fruit in the 2017 legislative session.
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