Over objections from older drug warriors, the GOP's younger generation — and even some of its elders — are working with Capitol Hill Democrats to shorten federal sentences, reduce populations in overcrowded federal prisons and even to count (and reconsider) the thousands of federal crimes on the books.

Among those leading the charge is Kentucky's junior senator, Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem wins Kentucky state House seat in district Trump won by 49 points GOP's tax reform bait-and-switch will widen inequality Pentagon budget euphoria could be short-lived MORE (R), seemingly a future presidential candidate. Over the past two years, with such diverse Senate voices as Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day HHS official put on leave amid probe into social media posts Trump, Pence to address CPAC this week MORE (R-Texas), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump's SEC may negate investors' ability to fight securities fraud Schatz's ignorance of our Anglo-American legal heritage illustrates problem with government Dems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee MORE (D-Mass.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan Congress punts fight over Dreamers to March Outgoing GOP rep: Republican Party 'heading into trouble' in election MORE (R-Ariz.), and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Senate rejects centrist immigration bill after Trump veto threat Sen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats MORE (D-N.J.), Paul has introduced or co-sponsored legislation that would 

  • Reduce mandatory minimum sentences; 
  • Expand judges' power to sentence defendants below mandatory minimum prison terms (the so-called "safety valve"); 
  • Equalize the punishments for crack and powder cocaine, and reduce certain low-level felony offenses to misdemeanors; 
  • Require a full count of federal criminal offenses; and 
  • Change the way criminal records are sealed or expunged, to help ex-offenders and those arrested but never convicted find jobs.

On the House side, similar bills have been co-sponsored by the usual Democrats, like Virginia's Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand Dems decry ObamaCare change as new attempt at 'sabotage' MORE and Michigan's John ConyersJohn James ConyersSchatz's ignorance of our Anglo-American legal heritage illustrates problem with government Dem consultant resigns in face of sexual misconduct allegation Tillerson announces mandatory sexual harassment training for State Dept. MORE. But in the 113th Congress, criminal justice reform has also enjoyed Republican sponsorships from the conservative likes of Spencer BachusSpencer Thomas BachusBipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism Manufacturers press Senate to approve Ex-Im board members MORE (Ala.), Frank WolfFrank Rudolph WolfHouse votes to mandate sexual harassment training for members and staff Trump, global religious freedom needs US ambassador to lead Bottom Line MORE (Va.), and Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans are avoiding gun talks as election looms The Hill's 12:30 Report Flake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan MORE (Wis.).

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Not all Republicans support changes to federal sentencing laws. An elder generation made their political careers in the 1980s supporting the very laws now on the changing table.

Alabama Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsUnder pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion Overnight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand MORE (R) served as a U.S. attorney throughout Reagan and George H.W. Bush's drug war. While he supported the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 — a measure that reduced the suggested difference between crack and powder cocaine sentences from a 100-to-1 ratio, to 18-to-1 — Sessions staunchly opposed making that change apply to cases that began before its passage, including through presidential clemency. Iowa Sen. Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Congress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees MORE (R) similarly opposes the Smarter Sentencing Act, believing that its mandatory minimum reductions "would put at risk our hard-won national drop in crime," and also "puts our national security at increased risk." On the Senate floor last month, Grassley said that "by slashing in half the mandatory minimum sentences for the local drug dealer down the block, the Smarter Sentencing Act also slashes in half the mandatory minimum sentences for members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Hezbollah who deal drugs to fund acts of terror."

This was once GOP orthodoxy: that long and often mandatory prison time was the path to reducing crime and protecting communities. Crime rates did go down after the 1980s' harsh sentencing reforms, although criminal justice experts suggest that longer prison terms were not the cause, but rather a coincidence that followed improved economic conditions and a natural shift to a different generation.

What these long prison terms undoubtedly did cause was an explosion of prison populations, mostly drug offenders who disproportionately came from minority communities. The United States now incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world, and its prisons are chronically overcrowded as a result. Even with a number of new prisons and contracts with private prison corporations, the Federal Bureau of Prisons averages around 36 percent overcrowding, with "crowding" rates still worse in its medium- and high-security facilities (the very places where extreme overcrowding puts inmates and guards alike in the most danger). Combined with exponential growth in medical care costs — made necessary by the long prison terms meted out since the 1980s — American taxpayers now spend tens of billions of dollars per year on punishment, without providing the drug treatment and job-training programming proven to reduce re-offending rates.

Against this backdrop, a group of Republican stalwarts have also formed a group called Right on Crime. With support from the likes of anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist, former U.S. Attorneys General Edwin Meese and Dick Thornburgh, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Right on Crime points to seven states that have reduced both prison costs and incarceration rates over the past 10 years. The group urges reduced costs of incarceration by reducing both numbers and length of prison sentences. It also seeks more programs in prison that are proven to reduce re-offense, like drug treatment. And it calls for smaller criminal codes, because "Criminal law should be reserved for conduct that is either blameworthy or threatens public safety, not wielded to grow government and undermine economic freedom."

With just weeks left in this Congress's working life, the GOP will not have to resolve its criminal justice conflicts before 2015. But as the presidential primaries get to speed, the veterans of the GOP's war on crime may have to reconcile not just with Democrats, but their own next generation calling for shorter, smarter criminal justice systems.

Hurst is an attorney based in Durham, N.C. He practices in federal courts across the country, concentrating in criminal sentencing, appeals, and habeas corpus matters.