Ryan's victory trumps justice reform opponents
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House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Paul Ryan to campaign for 25 vulnerable House Republicans GOP super PAC pushes back on report it skipped ad buys for California's Rohrabacher, Walters MORE’s primary opponent, Paul Nehlen, frequently attacked Ryan’s support for criminal justice reform.  Nehlen accused Ryan of pushing Obama’s agenda on jailbreak criminal justice reform policies.

Not only was Nehlen’s narrative wrong, his political calculus was flawed. Ryan clobbered him on Election Day, winning the primary with more than 80 percent of the vote.

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This isn’t the first time justice reform opponents, clinging to the old school thought that “tough on crime” rhetoric still sells with voters, have attempted to use their opposition to these reforms for political benefit.  What they got was the opposite, and here’s why.

First and foremost, it is conservatives in big red states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina who have led the way on justice reform issues for a decade. These efforts yielded great success in safely reducing the prison population, saving significant taxpayer resources, and most importantly lowering crime and recidivism rates.  

Texas Governor Rick Perry, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin are just a few of the conservative leaders who are the most ardent champions of, and effective spokespersons for, criminal justice reform.  Given all the state successes, President Obama’s support is actually a bit late to the party.

Republican U.S. Senator David VitterDavid Bruce VitterSenate panel advances Trump nominee who wouldn't say if Brown v. Board of Education was decided correctly Planned Parenthood targets judicial nominee over abortion comments Trump nominates wife of ex-Louisiana senator to be federal judge MORE, vying for conservative Louisiana gubernatorial seat, learned the hard way that attempting to tie his opponent to Obama’s criminal justice reforms was unproductive. With support from law enforcement, John Bel Edwards doubled down on his push for “bipartisan” criminal justice reforms.  Edwards is now the Governor of Louisiana.

Additionally, polling data from dozens of states across the country shows overwhelming support across the political and ideological spectrum for criminal justice reform.  Replacing one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences with penalties that reflect individual cases polls out the roof in battleground states like Michigan (91%) and Ohio (87%).

Surveys in states that will have hotly-contested Senate races such as Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Nevada, and Speaker Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin show support for reform issues ranging from the 60s to high 80s.  The smart political play is to embrace these reforms.

Doing otherwise could backfire.  Just ask Alaska’s then-incumbent Senator Mark BegichMark Peter BegichRepublicans see silver linings in deep-blue states Election Countdown: Trump plans ambitious travel schedule for midterms | Republicans blast strategy for keeping House | Poll shows Menendez race tightening | Cook Report shifts Duncan Hunter's seat after indictment The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s legal jeopardy mounts after Manafort, Cohen felony counts MORE. In the state’s 2014 U.S. Senate race, Begich attacked his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, alleging he was soft on crime. Sullivan emerged victorious over Begich and is currently serving as the junior senator from Alaska.

In a time when one in three American adults has a criminal record and every single American family is impacted by our broken justice system, supporting reform not only makes for sound policy but also smart politics. Which is why this irrational fear of supporting federal legislation similar to the aforementioned state reforms is all the more baffling.

Despite strong champions for reform on both sides of the aisle in both chambers, Congress has failed to bring this legislation to a vote.  And the longer the wait, the less likely a bill will get across the finish line this year.

But Paul Ryan’s trouncing of his ill-advised primary opponent could be a game changer.  After all, in the new era of smart on crime policy, reform opponents are 0-3.

Holly Harris is the Executive Director of the U.S. Justice Action Network (USJAN) the largest bipartisan coalition working at the state and federal level to reform the criminal justice system and former General Counsel to the Republican Party of Kentucky.  Andrew Howard is USJAN’s Director of Federal Affairs and former legislative aide to Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellJuan Williams: Trump’s policies on race are more important than his rhetoric It’s Mitch McConnell’s Washington – and we’re just living in it Trump makes new overtures to Democrats MORE.


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