WASHINGTON — Conservatives are making a push to sell the incoming Donald Trump administration on legislation overhauling the criminal justice system, arguing that the issue actually goes hand-in-hand with the president-elect's promises to “bring back law and order.”
“He’s new to town, he’s new to this issue, and we want to make sure he understands the depth of this issue as a conservative, limited government [...] reform operation," said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and the godfather of the Republicans' anti-tax dogma.
“We have always made the case [that] this is smart on crime," Norquist said. "This is right on crime, we want to continue to see the crime rates fall, while spending less money, ruining fewer lives, not tearing families apart when it’s not necessary, and getting people back into the real world as quickly as possible as workers rather than criminals.”
Congress has been considering several criminal justice bills, including legislation that attempts to reduce mass incarceration by, among other things, lowering mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders. Before the election, the legislation had bipartisan support and many expected it to pass in the new Congress.
But with the election of Trump and his nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions — a staunch opponent of criminal justice reform — for attorney general, many believe the effort is done for.
“It’s dead,” one Senate Republican aide close to the effort recently told BuzzFeed News. “It’s not something Trump wants and leadership has no incentive to anger him over it.”
But Norquist and other Republicans are urging the new administration to give criminal justice reform a hard look as a conservative issue with broad, bipartisan support, pointing to Trump allies who have backed reforms and to fiscal arguments for overhauling the justice system.
Norquist signed onto a recent letter to Trump from the U.S. Justice Action Network and other right-wing leaders asking the president-elect to make criminal justice reform a priority for his first 100 days in office.
"As the conservative partners of the nonpartisan U.S. Justice Action Network, we collectively represent millions of Americans across the conservative political spectrum," reads the letter, dated Nov. 18. "We must consider smart reforms that reduce unnecessary and duplicative laws, increase public safety, reduce taxpayer burden, and effectively rehabilitate and restore offenders to society."
Norquist signed the letter along with Marc Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a group of conservatives who support criminal justice reform; Tim Head, the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition; and Adam Brandon, head of FreedomWorks, a tea-party affiliated group.
The letter argues for treatment-based approaches for mentally ill offenders who do not pose a danger to society, "smart, data-driven policing" that, they argue, reduced crime and sent fewer people to prison during Rudy Giuliani's time as mayor of New York City, and reducing recidivism by helping ex-offenders get jobs.
"As you know from creating so many employment opportunities in your enterprises," the letter to Trump reads, "a job is the best social program and we look forward to working with your administration to turn many ex-offenders into productive workers and taxpayers who take care of their families."
The letter also applauds Vice President-Elect Mike Pence's call for criminal justice reform during the vice-presidential debate. "But change will only come through cooperation, both in Congress and with your new administration," the letter says. "With your administration comes momentum and a clean slate for change."
Before the election, reform legislation hit a roadblock in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was a "very divisive" issue within his caucus and did not bring it up for a vote.
But Norquist argues that Republicans, such as Sessions, who haven't supported criminal justice reform could have a change of heart now that they're in power.
“A whole bunch of people didn’t want to pass immigration laws, didn’t want to pass criminal justice reform because that whatever we passed, [President Barack] Obama would be the guy in charge of administering and he would do it wrong," Norquist said — admitting that Obama would have also received the credit.
“When you’re in charge, it’s a lot easier to make reforms," Norquist says. "If you don’t see yourself as in charge, you know, [you] make these reforms and then some nimnod, effete, nattering nabob judge is going to mess it all up."
"It’s not a strong argument for status quo, but I understand that it’s an argument that things could get worse,” he said.
Norquist says Trump now has the opportunity to build a legacy where Obama did not.
“This is a dropped ball on the Obama administration’s side," Norquist says. "It’s an opportunity for Trump to come in and take a leadership role on an issue that has won popular support among R’s and D’s.”
McConnell has also signaled the legislation might not be dead quite yet. “I have some very conservative members who are in favor of it and who are opposed to it,” he told reporters earlier this month. “So it didn’t look to me like a good agenda item for us at this point. But I wouldn’t want to rule it out for next Congress.”