Fifteen minutes outside of Washington, D.C., on a recent Thursday night, one of the Republican Party’s leading presidential candidates stood in front of an audience of young conservatives and spoke frankly about the need for criminal justice reform.
To the crowd, Sen. Rand Paul evoked the story of Kalief Browder, the Bronx teenager who spent three years in jail without ever being convicted of a crime.
“Kalief Browder is a young African-American male in the Bronx. You think his friends and his family don’t understand and believe that big government is not treating them fairly?” Paul said.
Paul was speaking to young guests at an organization whose slogan is, “Big Government Sucks.”
“So when you say big government—” Paul said.
“Sucks!” the crowd chanted.
“—remember it’s not just about business and taxes and balanced budgets,” Paul said. “It’s about individuals like Kalief Browder. In America, we need to remember that the least among us deserve justice. We need to be the party of justice.”
Paul has made the issue a central theme of his road to a likely presidential campaign, attempting to reach out to non-normal GOP voters in doing so. He is part of a coalition of senators on both the left and right pushing for solutions to over-criminalization, over-sentencing, and crowded prisons in the United States.
The horde of senators was recently joined by a coalition of some of the most unlikely groups working together — the liberal Center for American Progress, the conservative Koch Industries, and the libertarian-leaning American Civil Liberties Union.
Supporters of criminal justice reform, though, often worry more about a generational divide at the center of the split, which constitutes the “murky middle” ground that may derail any hope of progress on the issue right now.
The senators at the heart of the coalition, in addition to Paul, include Sens. Mike Lee of Utah (43 years old), Ted Cruz of Texas (44 years old), and Cory Booker of New Jersey (45 years old). Some of the representatives: Trey Gowdy of South Carolina (age 50), Hakeem Jeffries of New York (age 44), Cedric Richmond of Louisiana (age 41), and Raul Labrador (age 47). The senators are co-sponsors of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would provide judges with more leeway in sentencing non-violent drug offenders.
The obstacles standing in the way are people like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who’s now the chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Smarter Sentencing Act. Last month on the Senate floor, Grassley cited his opposition by claiming the law would help terrorists.
“It is a fact the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences Congress put in place for distributing drugs to benefit terrorists or terrorist organizations,” he said. “It would cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences for members of Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, or Hezbollah who deal drugs that fund terrorism.”
But the urge on both the left and right is real. It was on full display last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Paul spoke. Downstairs in the convention center in a sprawling area called the “CPAC Hub,” a small group of conservatives representing the organization Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty said they saw a sharp increase in foot traffic to their booth this year.
There’s no bill in front of Congress to eliminate the death penalty right now, but it’s becoming a growing issue on the right, especially on the state level. Lawmakers in six GOP-controlled state bodies have sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty amid a 5-point year-over-year drop in Republican support, according to Gallup./
“We got one guy over here and he said, ‘I support capital punishment, but I’ll give you a shot,’” said Marc Hyden, the advocacy coordinator with CCADP. “And we talked for five or 10 minutes and he said, ‘You’ve convinced me.’ I always consider those big wins for us.”
Two floors up, meanwhile, a panel was taking place that included Sam Brownback (age 58), the governor of Kansas. He has displayed his conservative chops — sometimes at the behest of grumbling back home — with huge tax cuts and, so far, a refusal to give in to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
But Brownback has also become a champion of criminal justice reform in his state, boasting that Kansas has reduced recidivism rates by about half. He confessed that was a different attitude than he had when running for Congress two decades ago.
"I think we have gotten stuck in the old mantra that, 'If you do the crime, you do the time,'" Brownback said. "When I first ran in the 1990s, that is one of the mantras that I put up. The problem of it was that at some point in time you find that…you got a guy coming out and we were having 60 percent recidivism rates. That is what we were having in our state — 60 percent recidivism rates."
Grover Norquist, the influential conservative leader of Americans for Tax Reform, believes it’s necessary to point out the difference between the coalition pushing for reform and the general concept of “bipartisanship.”
It will be an uphill battle, he conceded in an interview — more difficult to pass any kind of reform without the classic “bipartisan” coalition. But for the kind of change that’s needed, the classic bipartisan coalition wouldn’t do.
“People tend to think of bipartisanship as the 70 percent ‘mushy middle’ in the center of Congress getting together to pass a law that makes everyone happy,” Norquist said.
“Well, that doesn’t reform anything. That just means the guys who brought you the status quo are amending it. You get radical change when guys on the right and guys on the left come together.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.