Juan Williams: New hope for criminal justice reform

Juan Williams: New hope for criminal justice reform

Have you seen “Making a Murderer”?

I have not.

But last week three members of Congress – in totally unrelated conversations – mentioned the Netflix documentary to me.

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Then a White House aide expressed amazement to me about the 125,000 people who signed an online petition asking President Obama to pardon the two Wisconsin men convicted of the crime depicted in the ten-hour series. It turns out the president has no authority over the Wisconsin prisoners, who were convicted under state law.

Then I read where Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonBiden's son: If it were up to me, 'we’d be running for president starting tomorrow' Dem senator: DeVos ‘sends shivers down the spine’ Poll: More than a third of Americans say Trump's election added to their stress MORE was asked on the campaign trail if she had seen the documentary.

When I mentioned these conversations about the Netflix show to a friend far outside the world of Washington politics, he went ballistic.

He launched into a tirade about what facts were left out of the documentary and how people watching “Making a Murderer” or listening to the recent podcast “Serial” are convinced they can determine innocence and guilt better than detectives or a jury.

But he turned back to politics by saying that a national debate about criminal justice reform has been sparked by a combination of these true crime stories, crowded jails and a spike in drug deaths in mostly white areas. That debate, he suggested, has ignited across racial lines — and across political ones, too. 

He’s right. 

For the first time in years, the popular culture that usually writes off all Washington politics as a useless, politically polarized fraud is seriously looking to national politicians to do something about the failures of the criminal justice system. 

A rare optimism is in the air, convinced that the president and Congress can do something to end the harsh drug sentencing policies that have led to overcrowded jails yet have failed to stop the current epidemic of heroin overdose deaths.

At the Iowa Brown and Black Forum, I watched as Clinton and her fellow Democratic presidential candidates Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe absurd reason Warren is concerned about DeVos’ ‘banking’ experience Five takeaways from Pruitt's EPA hearing Overnight Energy: Trump's EPA pick faces Congress | 2016 is hottest year on record MORE and Martin O’Malley heard loud voices from the Black Lives Matter movement calling for urgent reform.

Twenty years ago, the safe bet for politicians was to play on fear of crime by promising to lock up every criminal, violent and non-violent, drug users and even those with mental illness for as long as possible by forcing judges to use mandatory sentencing guidelines. President Bill ClintonBill ClintonWhy Democrats fear a successful inaugural address from Trump Hillary Clinton tweets well-wishes to Bushes Chelsea Clinton: We must keep fighting MORE and a Republican Congress passed a 1994 crime bill that increased jail sentences and led to a 60 percent rise in the U.S. prison population by the end of Clinton’s term in 2001.

Now under the pull of popular culture those tides have shifted. With crime rates down, concern about flaws in the justice system is on the political upswing.

The evidence can be seen in books, television shows, on the presidential primary campaign trail and in Congress.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama listed sentencing reforms as one of a handful of “bipartisan priorities” that can be achieved even in an election year. “We just might surprise the cynics, again,” the president said, directing his remarks to the Republican Speaker, Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump team prepares dramatic cuts GOP recruitment goal: More women on ticket Five things to watch for in Mnuchin hearing MORE (Wis.).

A former prison inmate, Sue Ellen Allen, was in the House gallery for the speech, selected by the president as one of his guests because of her work to help female former inmates as they struggle to find a new life. And last summer, Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison.

In the last year, the president has found public support in polls as he presses for reforms to get more non-violent offenders out of jail and to reverse mandatory sentencing policies. Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was also a supporter of changing the rules on mandatory sentencing to cut jail time and help people released from prison find success on the outside.

But there had been questions about whether Ryan, upon assuming the Speakership, would push his colleagues in the new House leadership to work with the Senate to pass criminal justice reform.

In the last month, Ryan has made it clear he is on board.

He recently said in an interview that the “silly season” of campaign politics is on its way but added: “I think criminal justice reform is probably the biggest [issue] we can make a difference on – there is a real way forward on that.”

Ryan predicted that his often-fractured caucus would agree on a package of criminal justice reforms by June. He said he has spoken with members with little in common – Rep. Bobby Scott (D- Va.) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) — and found them willing to make a deal.

Earlier this month, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) took the first step toward comprehensive reform by passing two bills. The first will ensure that criminals with mental illness get treatment. The second is to help convicts leaving jail so they do not follow the well-worn path of recidivism.

The same pro-reform energy is evident on the GOP campaign trail.

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all come out in favor of major criminal justice reform in the last year. On the Democratic side of the campaign, Clinton, O’Malley and Sanders talk passionately in their daily stump speeches about the need for reform.

In most cases the candidates focus on the need for a new approach to dealing with drugs that does not center on sending people to jail. Of the 1.57 million Americans in federal and state prisons, half are there for drug related offenses, according to the Department of Justice.

The jury is still out on the facts in “Making a Murderer.” But the verdict is clear that it is a major piece in the cultural sea change that is opening the door to criminal justice reform in Congress.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.