Yesterday the New York Times ran a lengthy (and welcome) editorial urging Congress to act on sentencing reform, and lamented that they probably aren’t going to pass either the Smarter Sentencing Act or the Recidivisim Reduction and Public Safety Act this summer.

They list the reasons why they believe the issue has been back burnered, but they seem to be forgetting one:

  1. Senators Grassley, Sessions and Cornyn came out against sentencing reform and in favor of mandatory minimums
  2. The Obama’s Administration’s April announcement that it will consider clemency for inmates serving time old sentencing laws

As a result, they say, the issue will likely be pushed into 2015.

The Times seems to forget that the impact of the evil revolving-door Willie Horton ad that did so much damage to the political aspirations of Michael Dukakis is still being felt across the political landscape:

As recently s [October 2013], the spirit of the Horton ad visited the New York City mayoral race. Republican candidate Joe Lhota released an attack ad warning that if Democrat Bill de Blasio is elected, “recklessly dangerous agenda on crime will take us back to this.” The ad, called “Can’t Go Back,” featured ominous black and white photos from the 1970s through the 1990s, including the image of a frightened white woman on a graffiti-filled subway car.

Anyone who thinks they are going to take up a risky issue like sentencing reform this summer before an election is smoking crack, especially in the wake of primary losses of Eric Cantor and (likely tomorrow) Thad Cochran.  While the country as a whole is so gerrymandered that few incumbents are genuinely threatened, members of Congress get notoriously risk averse when they smell political blood in the air.

The Democrats don’t want to get demagogued by their GOP opponents for being “soft on crime” any more than establishment GOP figures want their primary challengers doing likewise.   (Never mind that Eric Cantor’s challenger Dave Brat is cast in the more Rand Paul/Ted Cruz revisionist model, both of whom support sentencing reform.  This isn’t a rational decision.)

Sentencing reform is a lame duck issue if ever their was one.  The lame duck session is a time when politically risky (or unpopular) bills stand their best chance of passage. Coming at the end of this year, it has the double benefit of being as far away from the next congressional election as humanly possible, as well as having a bunch of members of Congress who won’t be coming back by virtue of retirement or defeat who are more likely to vote for things they otherwise wouldn’t.

If sentencing reform gets pushed into 2015 any chance of passage is probably greatly diminished, because now you’re entering the 2016 presidential election space that has a nasty habit of sucking the wind out of everything.

The Times and everyone else interested in passing sentencing reform in the foreseeable future should be urging Congress to pass it in the lame duck session.  As they say, “Judicial pronouncements and executive orders only go so far. It is long past time for Congress to do its job and change these outdated, ineffective and unjust laws.”

We couldn’t agree more.

More on the Smarter Sentencing Act: