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Orrin Hatch Was Key Figure In Criminal Justice Policy



Credit: REUTERS

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.


Republicans and and many in law enforcement believed that appeals were allowed to stretch on far too long, including in death penalty cases.


"The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996" emerged during Hatch's renewed term as Judiciary chairman.


The law included tighter deadlines on filing appeals, limitations on successive petitions, restrictions on evidentiary hearings, and heightened standards for federal courts to defer to state court rulings.


Disler recalls that President Bill Clinton called Hatch at home late one night, waking him up, urging him to soften some of the bill's positions.


Clinton apparently did not want to be seen as weakening a crime bill as he ran for re-election and hoped that Hatch would favor his position quietly.


Disler says Hatch "did not bend, and "To this day, those provisions have their critics who consider them too restrictive."


Ronald Weich served as a senior Senate staffer and later chief Justice Department lobbyist.


"In general, Hatch showed more of an appetite for bipartisanship in his work with Senator Kennedy on health and education issues rather than criminal justice issues," says Weich, now dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law. "But he was not always hawkish on crime policy. He questioned the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentencing laws in an influential 1993 article in the Wake Forest Law Review and supported the mandatory minimum safety valve in the 1994 crime law as well as efforts to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. He was also a supporter of drug treatment, prisoner reentry and other crime prevention programs.”


President Biden, in a statement on Hatch's passing, said the senator "once shared in an interview that he had a soft side, and he had a tough side. To serve with Orrin, as I did for over three decades, was to see—and appreciate—both.


"When I cast my 10,000th vote in the Senate, Orrin came to the Senate floor and we had a chance to speak. I said that the greatest perk one has as a Senator was access to people with serious minds, a serious sense of purpose, and who cared about something. That was Orrin. He was, quite simply, an American original."

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