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Appearing just about as senatorial as you can get, Utah’s Mike Lee was at the Heritage Foundation Wednesday making “The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform” in support of his Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015. 

Applying conservative principles to failed federal policies, he says his bill would reduce both criminal rates and incarceration rates, particularly among non-violent drug offenders.

“We have federal sentencing laws that too often prohibit judges from exercising their human and legal judgment while punishing offenders,” Lee said. “And we have a penal system that isolates offenders from the only people and responsibilities in their life that have the power to facilitate true rehabilitation and redemption. No wonder an estimated three-quarters of offenders released from prison every year are re-arrested within five years”

 

“Criminal justice reform properly understood represents principled conservatism at its best,” he said. “For conservatives, the question isn’t whether we punish those who break the law, but how we punish them – for how long, under what circumstances, and toward what end.”

Forgiveness is not incompatible with punishment, he noted.

“The problem is that, over the past several decades, we have industrialized and bureaucratized our criminal, judicial, and penal systems,” he continued. “Which is to say, we’ve turned them into large, unaccountable, short-sighted, self-interested institutions that often treat offenders as statistical units, instead of human beings.”

The bill has 14 cosponsorsin addition to Lee, and 10 of those Senators are on the Judiciary Committee: Republicans Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, David Purdue, plus Lee himself, and Democrats Patrick Leahy (the ranking member), Dick Durbin, Sheldon Whitehouse, Al Franken, Chris Coons, and Richard Blumenthal.

This constitutes (in his precise legal terminology) a “super-duper majority” to get the bill through committee. Utah’s Orrin Hatch is not among the cosponsors, not is committee chair Chuck Grassley. Lee said that Grassley’s concerns about a previous version of the bill had been addressed and Lee was optimistic about his support.

Lee noted that the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential race agrees with this cause – noting that language similar to his appears on the Bernie Sanders website, which grabbed a few laughs. Then he added he wasn’t sure if Hillary Clinton agreed with criminal justice reform … maybe she has similar language “on a private server somewhere,” which grabbed a lot of laughs.

UtahPolicy.com asked Lee if he’s worried that this legislation could give a primary contender leverage to charge that he’s soft on crime. His short answer was “no.”

“I’d welcome the opportunity to discuss this and welcome that person to read the legislation,” he said. “And to explain to me exactly what about it is soft on crime? What about it would make us less safe rather than more safe?”

The speech’s full text is here. Continue the conversation on Twitter with #CJReform.