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Convicted Republicans Plead for Mandatory Minimums Changes

Ring says courts need more leeway in sentencing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

An ex-colleague of Jack Abramoff shared an anecdote from his stint in prison with a room full of conservatives Thursday. After the one-time Hill climber explained to a fellow inmate that a dog was going to get neutered, the inmate asked the longtime Republican aide, "How long does it take for them to grow back?"  

Kevin Ring, the lobbyist who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 months in federal prison for his role in a corruption scheme, was pitching to GOP aides gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building on an effort to overhaul mandatory minimum requirements. Ring, who has been working in downtown Washington, D.C., since his April prison release, wanted the staffers to understand that current guidelines more often send low-level dealers and addicts to prison, not drug kingpins. "These are the people we think we're deterring with the stiff laws," Ring said. "We think, 'Oh, if we pass a new mandatory minimum of five years, these people are going to sit there and pore over the U.S. code and say, "Oh, I was going to do that, but I think Congress is entertaining a bill to stiffen those penalties. I'm going to wait this out. Maybe it's not worth it."'"  

Ring admitted he had the same "we'll just hammer these folks" mindset when he worked on Capitol Hill as an aide to former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., drafting mandatory minimum sentencing laws for methamphetamine offenses.  

Two other convicted Republicans who served time in federal custody joined Ring for the lunchtime forum aimed at building support for a proposal sponsored by Republican Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Democrat Robert C. Scott of Virginia.  

Red states are leading the way, and now it is "time that the federal government catches up," Sensenbrenner, a former House Judiciary Committee chairman, said during his brief talk to staffers as they munched on Chick-fil-A lunches.  

Despite positive feedback from Speaker John A. Boehner, Sensenbrenner acknowledged it would be tough to prod his bill forward. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not on board. Sensenbrenner also suggested he may have "worn out my welcome" in the Senate during the recent debacle over reauthorizing the Patriot Act , though a separate effort is gaining momentum in that chamber on a bipartisan basis.  

Some federal prosecutors have expressed opposition to executive branch efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, arguing they are an essential tool to dismantling drug rings.  

Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, disgraced in 2004 when he was forced to withdraw from his nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said it was "incumbent" that the next White House administration tackle mandatory minimums.  

Kerik pulled out of consideration after admitting he had not paid taxes for a domestic worker who may have been an illegal immigrant, and later pleaded guilty to eight felony charges, including tax fraud and lying under oath. He was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison.  

Knitting, chess and checkers were offered as adult continuing-education classes to inmates at the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md., where Ring and Kerik served their sentences. "You can teach an inmate real estate or accounting, but that federal conviction will keep them from getting a license," Kerik said.  

"Idle hands are the devil's playground," echoed Pat Nolan, who served 15 years in the California State Assembly before he was nabbed accepting an illicit campaign contribution as part of an FBI sting. He pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and served 29 months in federal custody.  

Twenty-four hours earlier, in the same room, House Judiciary Democrats unveiled legislation that would end mandatory life imprisonment for incarcerated youth, as part of a package of bills focused on sentencing and incarceration. Ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, also introduced a measure aimed at increasing police accountability in the wake of high-profile deadly encounters between officers and black citizens.  

"It is clear that improved national standards are necessary to address the ever-growing catalogue of incidents such as the case of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, where a routine traffic stop led to an arrest and a death in custody 72 hours later," Conyers stated Wednesday. "It is critical that we adopt smarter approaches to dealing with those involved with the criminal justice system.”  

Among Republicans, the blame was on the Justice Department. Nolan fired off at U.S. attorneys, saying their jobs are "entirely political" and driven by numbers. They have the tools to protect the public and keep the streets clean, he said, "but there's no restraint."  

   

Related: Senators Moving Closer to Deal on Criminal Justice Bills Senators See Bipartisan Momentum for Criminal Justice Overhaul Out of Prison, Ex-Lobbyist Pushes Sentencing Overhaul See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.