Sen. Mike Lee: A conservative case for criminal justice reform

“Government’s first duty,” President Reagan said in 1981 and President Trump recently tweeted, “is to protect the people, not run their lives.” The safety of law-abiding citizens has always been a core principle of conservatism. And it is why we need to take this opportunity to pass real criminal-justice reform now.

Although violent crime rose during the final two years of President Obama’s time in office, it decreased during the first year of Trump’s presidency. We need to keep that momentum going. And criminal justice reform can help us do that in two ways.

First, commonsense sentencing reform can increase trust in the criminal-justice system, thus making it easier for law enforcement personnel to police communities. Right now, federal mandatory-minimum sentences for many drug offenses can lead to outcomes that strike many people as unfair, and thus undermine the public’s faith in our justice system.

For example, when I served as an Assistant United States Attorney in Salt Lake City, Weldon Angelos -- a young father of two with no criminal record -- was convicted of selling three dime bags of marijuana to a paid informant over a short period of time.

These were not violent crimes. No one was hurt. But because Angelos had been in possession of a gun at the time he sold the drugs (a gun which was neither brandished nor discharged in connection with the offense), the judge was forced by federal law to give him a 55-year prison sentence. The average federal sentence for assault is just two years. The average murderer only gets 15 years. While acknowledging the obvious excessiveness of the sentence, the judge explained that the applicable federal statutes gave him no authority to impose a less-severe prison term, noting that “only Congress can fix this problem.”

When the public sees judges handing out unfair punishments, it undermines trust in the entire justice system. This makes it harder for police to do their job. As Ronald Reagan explained when he was Governor of California, “[w]ithout respect for the law, the best laws cannot be effective. Without respect for law enforcement, laws cannot be carried out. We must have respect, not only for the law, but also for the many who dedicate their lives to the protection of society through enforcement of the law.” Fairer sentencing laws will increase respect for police, especially in many communities where such respect is currently lacking.

Second, excessive prison sentences break apart families and weaken communities -- the building blocks of American civil society. Incarceration is tough on any marriage. Few can survive the loss of marital love and financial strain that happens when a spouse is behind bars. And the longer the sentence, the more likely a marriage will end in divorce. One 2011 study found that each additional year behind bars increases the likelihood of divorce by 32 percent. This has real costs for the families -- and especially the children -- of offenders.

Incarceration is an essential law enforcement tool that protects communities and keeps families safe. But it also inflicts costs on communities and families, and at some point the negative impact of incarceration on marriage and family can become too stark to ignore. And for non-violent offenders, especially those with no prior criminal history, excessive sentences often do far more harm than good.

We now have a rare opportunity to pass criminal justice reform that will help restore trust in law enforcement and protect American families. In May of this year, the House of Representatives passed the First Step Act, which includes some much-needed prison reform measures that would reduce recidivism. Unfortunately, it did not include any reforms to address manifestly unjust sentences for non-violent offenders.

The Senate now has a chance to add some of those much-needed prison reform measures into the bill.  We won’t get everything we want, but we have an incredible opportunity to reach a compromise that includes meaningful, commonsense reforms to our nation’s mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws.

It is unlikely we will get another opportunity to enact meaningful reform anytime soon. President Obama failed to accomplish criminal-justice reform during his eight years in office. But President Trump and the Republican Congress can get the job done now. It would be another big step toward making America great again.