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Do GOP Attacks on Jackson Signal Retreat On Justice Reform?

Photo: REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

During Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing, Republicans reiterated attack lines they’ve been using on Democrats when it comes to crime.

“The Biden administration is committed to these soft-on-crime policies,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). “Liberal judges who have more sympathy for the victimizers than for the victims are a big part of the problem.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, “[The best way to deter people viewing child porn] is to put their ass in jail,” as he criticized Jackson’s sentencing decisions in such cases.

Throughout the hearing — and seemingly everywhere else months — many Republicans have embraced a “tough on crime” stance. That comes in response to an uptick in violent crime during the pandemic and corresponding voter concerns about it, reports

“Under one-party Democrat rule in Washington, American families are facing … a crime crisis,” House Republicans tweeted this month. “Crime is surging across the country,” Senate Republicans emphasized in February. “The results of Democrats’ soft-on-crime policies are clear.”

The rhetoric in Jackson’s hearing and in broader GOP messaging have seemed like a departure from the focus on criminal justice reform that the party had as recently as 2018, when a majority of Senate Republicans backed sentencing changes for nonviolent offenders in the First Step Act.

The party back then was eager to show it had made progress on an issue that arose from Congress’s efforts to crack down on crime decades ago. Many of these efforts notably excluded violent offenders or sex offenders that Jackson was spuriously accused of going easy on.

Some Republicans are reluctant to evangelize criminal justice reforms now, advocates say, as increases in crime have become a GOP talking point. The Council on Criminal Justice says the homicide rate across 22 major cities was up five percent in 2021 compared to 2020, and up 44 percent compared to 2019.

“I think your average conservative, or average Republican, may have supported the First Step Act, but I have the impression that the average conservative has backed off from where they were,” says Clark Neily of the Cato Institute.

Still, 10 Republicans signed on last week to cosponsor the Equal Act, which that would reduce the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. The legislation — which would make penalties the same for the two substances — could pass with the GOP support it has.

“The fact of the matter is that all who work in DC politics understand that congressional hearings basically exist for political grandstanding, and that’s pretty much it,” says Jason Pye, a director at the criminal justice reform group Due Process, who lobbied Republicans on the First Step Act. “There are plenty of Republicans in the Senate who will vote for bills like this because they think it’s the right thing to do.”


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