Speaker Ryan Makes Compelling Case for Justice Reform

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) indicated Wednesday that he plans to bring the House Judiciary Committee’s justice reform package to the floor of the lower chamber for a vote. He did not, however, offer a timetable for action, nor did he indicate which specific bills would be part of the package.

The House Judiciary Committee has already approved several pieces of legislation aimed at reforming the federal justice system. FreedomWorks is on record in support of the Sentencing Reform Act, which restores just sentencing for low-level, nonviolent offenders; the Criminal Code Improvement Act, which creates a default criminal intent standard that prosecutors have to meet; and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act. Together, which requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to conduct assessments of each federal prisoner to determine their risk of recidivism.

Together, these bills, as well as other passes by the committee, would address the growth in the federal prison population, the explosion in federal spending on corrections, and enhance public safety. Conservative states have taken similar steps and seen positive results, which is why Ryan, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Id.), and other are working to advance justice reform this year.

After a speech Wednesday, during a question-and-answer period, Ryan explained that he was not always on board with justice reform but became convinced that it was the right path to take after seeing how the cycle of crime and poverty hurts poor communities.

“I spent the last few years touring poor communities around America – rural areas, inner cities – learning about just how people are trying to struggle with poverty,” Ryan said when asked if he has ever changed his mind about an issue. “And one of the things that I learned was there are a lot of people who have been in prison who committed crimes that were not violent crimes and who, once they have that blight on the record, had been in prison, their future is really bleak.”

Ryan said that he believes Congress “overcompensated” on criminal justice laws in the 1990s through mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes” laws. “We ended up putting people for long prison terms, which ends up ruining their lives and hurting their communities, where we could have had an alternative means of incarceration, better means of actually dealing with the problem and basically destroying a person’s life,” he explained. “And so that is why I have become more of a late convert to criminal justice reform.”

Justice reform was not on Ryan’s radar in the early part of his time in Congress. Like many, he subscribed to purportedly “tough on crime” policies and never thought much else of it until he toured some of America’s poorest communities and saw “the path of the pathologies” of those policies. Ryan said that he spoke to Chairman Goodlatte recently and committed to a vote on the bills that have passed the House Judiciary Committee.

“That is why – and I talked with [House Judiciary Committee Chairman] Bob Goodlatte about this last night – we’re going to being criminal justice reform bills, which are now out of the Judiciary Committee, to the House floor and advance this, because what we’re learning is, what I learned, I didn’t necessarily notice before is, you know, redemption is a beautiful thing. It’s a great thing,” Ryan said. “Redemption is what makes this place work – this place being America, society – and we need to honor redemption and we need to make redemption something that is valued in our culture, in our society, and in our laws.

“That is why I think criminal justice reform is something that I changed my position on from learning about the power of redemption and the fact that our laws got this wrong. That’s something we can improve, so that when a young man comes out of prison – a person who is not a violent criminal, who did something where he really needed addiction counseling; he needed some of other kind of mentoring, maybe faith – that he can actually go back and be a productive member of society, be a good husband, be a good father, make a difference, reach his potential,” he added.

Ryan presented a compelling case, perhaps more so than most who have been working on justice reform for years could make. Though he, once again, offered his support for the measures that have already passed the House Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, he did not offer a timetable on a vote. With the Senate moving slowly on the issue, Ryan has an opportunity to show real leadership on justice reform, which is based largely on bold ideas passed by conservative states, and get something big done this year.