Policy

Criminal Justice System Reformers in House a Motley Bipartisan Crew

A libertarian-leaning Minnesota rep has teamed up with a Virginia progressive to push reform initiatives

Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., has taken up criminal justice system reform as one of his primary missions. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As lawmakers work to reconcile differences between separate Senate and House bills to reform juvenile criminal detention, leaders with vastly different ideological backgrounds have shown they are eager to work across the aisle to remake the criminal justice system.

Reps. Jason Lewis, a Minnesota Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, have spearheaded multiple efforts to that end, including a bill that passed the House last May that would provide education and vocational training resources to at-risk youth and young criminal offenders instead of levying penalties against them for petty offenses.

That bill has wide-ranging bipartisan support, from progressives such as Chicago Rep. Danny Davis to rural Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita.

They’re also working on proposals aimed at reducing the federal prison budget and emphasizing rehabilitative programs over incarceration for non-violent offenders with no criminal history.

“Criminal justice reform, reducing crime and saving money — that’s a position that Jason has adopted, and I think we can make some progress working together in the House,” Scott said in an interview with the Minnesota Star Tribune. “We don’t belabor the fact that we disagree on a lot of the other issues.”

Lewis, a longtime conservative radio host in Minnesota known as “Mr. Right,” said “The bottom line is the budget is getting out of control and the number of people being incarcerated is getting out of control.” 

Lewis and Scott’s partnership tackling issues in the criminal justice system has also bridged a number of wide-ranging and ideologically clashing outside groups: the NAACP and Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the left, and, on the right, FreedomWorks, a libertarian advocacy group, and the American Conservative Union, which organizes the Conservative Political Action Conference each year that brings thousands of conservatives to Washington.

Lewis and Scott are also pushing a bill to limit mandatory minimum sentences mostly to leaders of drug trafficking rings and not their first-time-offender ancillaries. It would also divert resources to focus on crime prevention.

Lewis said there is a balance lawmakers must strike when crafting criminal justice system legislation. He indicated many of his Republican colleagues have not done that.

“I do think people are leery of too much law,” Lewis told the Star Tribune. "On the other side, ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ doesn’t work. ...You end up turning first-time, nonviolent offenders into hardened criminals, and you don’t want to do that.”

Watch: What’s a Senate Blue Slip and Why Is It Losing Power?

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