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 PaulLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Overnight Defense: Formal negotiations inch forward on defense bill with Confederate base name language | Senators look to block B UAE arms sales | Trump administration imposes Iran sanctions over human rights abuses MORE (R), seemingly a future presidential candidate. Over the past two years, with such diverse Senate voices as Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (R-Texas), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D-Mass.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeProfiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers McSally concedes Arizona Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare front and center; transition standoff continues MORE (R-Ariz.), and Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  Hill associations push for more diversity in lawmakers' staffs Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' 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 ScottNational reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Trump officials approve Georgia plan to remove healthcare.gov as enrollment option House committee subpoenas Education Department staff over for-profit colleges MORE and Michigan's John ConyersJohn James ConyersBiden's immigration plan has serious problems Tlaib wins Michigan Democratic primary Tlaib holds lead in early vote count against primary challenger MORE. But in the 113th Congress, criminal justice reform has also enjoyed Republican sponsorships from the conservative likes of Spencer BachusSpencer Thomas BachusManufacturing group leads coalition to urge Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank Biz groups take victory lap on Ex-Im Bank On The Money: White House files notice of China tariff hikes | Dems cite NYT report in push for Trump tax returns | Trump hits Iran with new sanctions | Trump praises GM for selling shuttered Ohio factory | Ex-Im Bank back at full strength MORE (Ala.), Frank WolfFrank Rudolph WolfBottom line Africa's gathering storm DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling MORE (Va.), and Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Bottom line Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition 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 SessionsAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Tuberville incorrectly says Gore was president-elect in 2000 Next attorney general must embrace marijuana law reforms 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 GrassleyRep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 On The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus Loeffler to continue to self-isolate after conflicting COVID-19 test results 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.