This op-ed was originally published at Rare on April 15, 2015.
Marco Rubio is running for president, clearly making his youth a centerpiece of his nascent campaign in contrast to the 67-year-old Democratic Party frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, who announced her campaign over the weekend.
Rubio, 43, took a shot a Clinton during his announcement early Monday evening. “[J]ust yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday,” said the Florida Republican. “Yesterday is over.”
But when it comes to criminal justice reform, unfortunately Rubio seems stuck in the past too.
Several Republicans who have already announced, including both Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), or are thought to be eyeing a run for president, such as former Texas. Gov. Rick Perry, have conceded that our justice system is in many ways unfair and in desperate need of an overhaul. Rubio, however, has criticized reform efforts.
In an October op-ed at the Washington Times, Rubio conceded that “individuals from a variety of perspectives have made a compelling case that American law has been over-criminalized and over-federalized,” but he indicated that he subscribes to policies that hurt families and entire communities.
“[R]eform,” Rubio wrote in October, “should not begin with careless weakening of drug laws that have done so much to help end the violence and mayhem that plagued American cities in prior decades.”
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. The federal prison population has grown by an astonishing 800 percent since 1980 and the cost of housing an inmate has grown from $21,603 in 2000 to nearly $30,000 in 2013, according to the Congressional Research Service. And since 2000, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget has almost doubled, from $3.668 billion to $6.445 billion.
One of the main drivers of the federal prison population is mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, which put many nonviolent offenders in prison for lengthy sentences that simply do not fit their offense.
Like others stuck in the 1980’s “tough on crime” mindset, Rubio appears to have been misinformed about who has been locked up under this big government, one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. The U.S. Sentencing Commission notes that, in 2012, 53 percent of federal drug offenders had little or no prior criminal history. These are low-level, nonviolent offenders who do not belong in prison.
Indeed, communities would be better served if nonviolent offenders, many of whom have families and loved ones who depend on them, were required to go through treatment rather than be subject to long prison sentences.
And while Rubio believes that “tough on crime” laws have “done so much to help end the violence and mayhem that plagued American cities,” he is simply wrong.
Pointing to a National Research Council study, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) recently explained that “[o]ur communities have paid a high cost for the stiff sentences that mandatory minimums require.”
“The National Research Council found that high incarceration rates are concentrated in poor, minority neighborhoods, and that the incarceration of significant numbers of residents in these neighborhoods actually compounded existing social and economic problems such as unemployment, poverty, family disruption, poor health, and drug addiction,” Lee said from the Senate floor last month.
Lee is the primary sponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut in half federal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that this bill would save a net $3 billion over a decade. The Justice Department believes it would save nearly $24 billion over 20 years.
Though the Smarter Sentencing Act does not repeal mandatory minimums, 77 percent of Americans favor that approach, according to an October 2014 Reason-Rupe survey. Though support was high across all age demographics, 80 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds and 77 percent of 30 to 44 year-olds support eliminating mandatory minimums.
To his credit, Rubio does get one aspect of justice reform right. He has criticized federal civil asset for forfeiture laws, taking aim at the Justice Department’s facilitation of abuse and the “perverse incentive” created to seize property without a conviction, but he stopped short of backing congressional reform.
Rubio is, without doubt, an interesting candidate, and his youth and vitality may well play to his advantage. But his support for decades old failed policies that ravage communities and drive up costs to taxpayers exposes a serious and, perhaps, broader flaw in his generational campaign theme.