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 PaulRepublicans have spent .5 million at Trump properties since he took office: report Ex-Virginia GOP Senate candidate shares offensive voicemail allegedly left by Charlottesville rally organizer GOP leaders: No talk of inviting Russia delegation to Capitol MORE (R), seemingly a future presidential candidate. Over the past two years, with such diverse Senate voices as Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMellman: Two worlds — Online and off GOP pollster: Trump dominates political rivals vying for media attention Cruz challenger O'Rourke launching .27M TV ad buy focusing on 'positive' message MORE (R-Texas), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenCanadian corporate tax cuts show success of strong economic policy Avenatti on 2020 campaign: 'The truth is my policy issue' Democrats embracing socialism is dangerous for America MORE (D-Mass.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP senator: Republicans should not be 'okay' with Trump calling Omarosa a dog Senate GOP campaign arm asking Trump to endorse McSally in Arizona: report Arpaio says he misheard Sacha Baron Cohen questions MORE (R-Ariz.), and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocrats embracing socialism is dangerous for America Kavanaugh recommended against Clinton indictment in 1998: report Kavanaugh once said president would likely have to testify before grand jury if subpoenaed: report 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 ScottHouse Democrats to introduce bill that would allow free two-year degrees: report Top Dems urge Trump officials to reverse suspension of ObamaCare payments Overnight Health Care: Judge blocks Kentucky Medicaid work requirements | Trump officials consider cuts to ObamaCare outreach | House probes HHS office in charge of migrant children MORE and Michigan's John ConyersJohn James ConyersConservative activist disrupts campaign event for Muslim candidates Michigan Dems elect state's first all-female statewide ticket for midterms Record numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress MORE. But in the 113th Congress, criminal justice reform has also enjoyed Republican sponsorships from the conservative likes of Spencer BachusSpencer Thomas BachusThe key for EXIM's future lies in accountability Manufacturers support Reed to helm Ex-Im Bank Manufacturers ramp up pressure on Senate to fill Ex-Im Bank board MORE (Ala.), Frank WolfFrank Rudolph WolfVulnerable Republican keeps focus as Democrats highlight Trump Bolton could be the first national security chief to prioritize religious freedom House votes to mandate sexual harassment training for members and staff MORE (Va.), and Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Ironworker and star of viral video wins Dem primary for Speaker Ryan's seat Live results: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Connecticut hold primaries 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 SessionsSwalwell: I would have fired Strzok too Omarosa: Trump calls Education chief 'Ditzy' DeVos Ex-Reagan official: If Mueller had nothing, Trump 'would ignore him' 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 GrassleyOvernight Health Care: Lawsuit challenges Arkansas Medicaid work requirements | CVS program targets high-cost drugs | Google parent invests in ObamaCare startup Oscar Archivist rejects Democrats' demand for Kavanaugh documents Kavanaugh recommended against Clinton indictment in 1998: report 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.