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National Issues

Cruz’s disappointing vote against criminal justice reform

Early in 2015, as chatter about the upcoming election grew more common, the media began to present criminal justice reform as one of the only issues with the potential for bipartisan agreement in an otherwise divisive election. And the idea emerged from a somewhat surprising publication: an essay written by conservative Ted Cruz.

In February 2015, Cruz co-sponsored a bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act. Just a few months later, the Brennan Center published Cruz’s essay calling for extensive criminal justice reform. Among other issues, the Texas Republican focused on over-criminalization, harsh mandatory minimum sentences, and the demise of jury trials.

This publication caused somewhat of a media frenzy, with the following weeks featuring a flurry of headlines such as: “What do Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz have in Common? Ideas on Criminal Justice Overhaul, NYT Reports” and “2016 Candidates Are United in Call to Alter Justice System.”

Yet, when Cruz had a chance to put actions behind his suggestions, he voted against the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a comprehensive, bipartisan sentencing legislation that is currently in Congress.

Cruz’s bill and the current sentencing bill shared the goal of reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders. They both proposed to do this through the reduction of mandatory minimum-length sentences for certain crimes and the increased scope of the Safety Valve, which allows relief for nonviolent first-time drug offenders.

Some people have even said the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is harsher than Cruz’s proposal, partly because it proposes to create some new mandatory minimums for crimes like “interstate domestic violence.”

The current bill includes proposals that directly address Cruz’s suggestions in his essays. Cruz says legislation needs to give judges more flexibility in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders, and the bill does this. Further, Cruz says we need to limit mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, which the bill he voted against directly does.

Cruz has also openly praised Texas legislative reforms from 2005 that increased the state budget to create rehabilitative services for prisoners as alternatives to incarceration. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act outlines a plan to do this same thing, creating work and education programs for felons and setting aside money for drug rehabilitation programs.

Despite being a bill that achieves many of Cruz’s objectives, Cruz voted no because of two stated reasons.

First, Cruz said he couldn’t support a bill that applied retroactively. However, the bill he co-sponsored included retroactivity for certain statutes, including the changed mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine crimes.

Also, it seems like if, as Cruz stated in his essay, current mandatory minimum sentences are “draconian,” “harsh” and “ineffective,” and if that means we should reform them, then the reforms naturally should apply to anyone who has been subject to them in the past along with future offenders.

Second, Cruz said he wouldn’t approve the bill because he could not “go along with legislation that could result in more violent criminals being released in the streets.” But the reduced mandatory minimums, just like the ones in Cruz’s original bill, do not trigger automatic resentencing; courts can deny reductions to anyone who they feel is a danger to the public.

The blatant change in Cruz’s stance is disappointing to many who hoped for criminal justice reform, and also for those who wished for at least one issue that both parties could agree on and make beneficial change.

I find it concerning how quickly and easily stances on issues that are life-altering to many Americans change during an election year.

Cruz acknowledged how politically complex the issue of criminal justice reform is in his essay for the Brennan Center, saying “the political incentives to criminalized disfavored conduct — whether it is inherently evil or not — could prove too great to generate the support needed.” Unfortunately, they also proved too great for him to maintain his admirable position.

Chloe Warnberg, from Dallas, Texas, is a junior studying public policy at Duke.





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