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Orrin Hatch Was Key Figure In Criminal Justice Policy


Longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who died Saturday at 88, was a leading figure in formulating U.S. anticrime policy during his time in Congress. Hatch succeeded Joe Biden as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which considers most criminal justice legislation, in 1995, serving until 2001, and later chairing the panel from 2003 to 2005.

While Hatch was better known for heading Senate panels that determined the fate of health, education and labor bills, he strongly influenced the course of anticrime legislation, including the 1994 crime law that set policy for many years.

In later years, he helped draft the USA Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks and backed President Trump's controversial immigration initiatives.

As the 1994 law was being debated, Biden still headed Judiciary but Hatch was the top Republican.

He mocked Democrats' calls to authorize billions of dollars for programs like job training and recreation for youth. At one session, Hatch complained that the real problem was that "our nation's criminal justice system lacks credibility."

Hatch argued that Congress should spend more on building prison cells and less on "1960s-style Great Society social spending boondoggles."

He displayed a chart tracking imprisonment totals and crime rates that purported to show that as more criminals were imprisoned, crime rates fell.

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), a frequent Hatch foe on crime issues, ridiculed Hatch's visual aid as "the most incredible chart I've ever seen."

Congress did end up supporting both social programs and state prison building in the law, a development that critics contended was partially responsible for the sharp growth in mass incarceration over several decades.

During the 1994 crime law debates, Hatch was a leader in the effort to restore and expand the federal death penalty.

Mark Disler, a Hatch staff member, said the senator "made a huge difference" two years later leading the longtime Republican effort to reform habeas corpus law.