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Sen. Mike Lee Makes Final Push For Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Bill

Photo of Mike Lee.
Pool Photo / KUER

Congress is considering bipartisan legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system that President Trump says he wants to sign into law by the end of the year. Called the First Step Act, the bill aims to reduce recidivism and incarceration rates among the federal prison population.

One of the main supporters of the bill is Utah’s Republican Sen. Mike Lee, a longtime proponent of prison reform. He spoke with KUER on what the bill does and why some members of his own party are resistant to it.

JR: Before you were a senator, you were a federal prosecutor. I'm wondering what you saw during your time that kind of led you to this issue?

Sen. Lee:  From time to time I saw cases resulting in obscene, absurd sentences. One of those was a case in Utah involving a young man named Weldon Angelos. He was in his mid-20s; the father of two young children. He made some mistakes, and he ended up selling marijuana to a single confidential informant over a three-day period. Mr. Angelos had a gun on his person at the time. He didn't brandish or discharge or otherwise use the weapon, but he did have it on his person. Somehow the confidential informant was aware of this. Because of the way he was charged — because of the fact that he had a gun on his person at the time — he ended up with a mandatory minimum sentence of 55 years in prison.

The federal district judge who sentenced him, himself a former federal prosecutor, Paul Casell, took the unusual step of issuing an opinion disagreeing with the sentence he was about to impose. But as he pointed out, he had no choice. His hands were tied. He pointed out that there are rapists and murderers and terrorists and kidnappers who don't get anywhere near that much time.

JR: A lot of the meat of this bill deals with credit inmates can earn to apply to pre-release custody. What would be the big change there?

Sen. Lee: The big change there would be that the federal government would be modeling some of its programming after what's already been done by a number of states. Including some states like Georgia and Texas that have huge criminal justice systems and have had huge success experimenting with programs that incentivize inmates to take courses and to receive training and counseling of the sort that's been statistically shown to reduce the rate of recidivism. … Most prisoners end up being released at some point. We want them to be the kinds of people who will re-enter society as citizens ready to work, ready to be members of their communities again.

JR: You wrote an article today in The National Review addressing some criticism from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who claims the bill would lead to violent offenders getting released early. Why has this been a hard sell for some members of your party?

Sen. Lee: Well, I think there are some members of my party who just instinctively don't like any bill that could result in some people staying in prison for a shorter period of time than they would otherwise spend in prison. I happen to disagree with that foundational belief. There’s nothing written in stone that says longer sentences are always better. In fact, quite to the contrary, in many instances we discover that we when we mistreat people, when we over-incarcerate, when we leave somebody locked up longer than they need to be, that might actually enhance the risk that they will recommit crimes once they're released.

JR: President Trump is supporting the legislation despite his law-and-order posturing. And I just wondered if there is a contradiction in the GOP platform between being tough on crime and being compassionate?

Sen. Lee: No, there isn't. And in fact I would say in the case of President Trump — that in the case of myself and many other Republicans who support this — we support it not in spite of but because of our stance on law and order. We support this not in spite of but because we care about public safety. This bill would make the American people safer. And it would do that by making sure that our scarce federal criminal justice resources are utilized properly and that we're not foolishly locking people up — sometimes for decades at a time — for relatively minor nonviolent offenses.

JR: This bill does have bipartisan support with backers like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. But some would still like to see it go further and address sentencing reform and reducing the number of people incarcerated. Why address the back-end population instead of trying to minimize the number of people flowing into the system?

Sen. Lee: This bill actually does both. There are two major components of it. One of them deals with what you refer to as the ‘back-end reform’ — preparing people to go back into the general population. But there's another component of it that deals specifically with sentencing reform and that tries to chip away at some of the problems that have crept into the federal criminal code over the years, resulting in ridiculous 55-year sentences like those received by Weldon Angelos.

JR: Why is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hesitant to bring this to the floor, and how are you feeling about the chances of this passing before the end of the year?

Sen. Lee: You know what Senator McConnell has stated publicly in the past is that he's leery of some things that would, as he puts it, divide the Republican conference. But at the same time he's also said that notwithstanding the fact that not every Republican agrees on this — If we could get to the point where we have a total of 65 or more votes in support of this, that he would bring it up to the floor ... even though he and others might choose to vote against it.

We're now at that point. I believe we've got well in excess of 65 votes to get this passed. I believe we've got at least 25 votes for it among Republicans … and we've probably got between 40 and 45 Democrats who will vote for it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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