Resources & Media

David Perdue’s opposition to criminal justice bill draws criticism

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
April 6, 2016
Tamar Hallerman

WASHINGTON — Georgia put itself at the national forefront in 2012 when legislators of every political stripe united to emphatically and enthusiastically pass the first of several bills overhauling the state’s criminal justice system.

When it came to building political momentum for a similar transformation on the federal level, supporters looked to David Perdue, the state’s freshman U.S. senator. With a plum spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a stated interest in the issue, Perdue was seen as a natural fit for the effort.

That’s what made proponents of change so angry when Perdue months later became an obstacle to the passage of a major bipartisan overhaul by joining with a small group of conservatives intent on sinking the measure in its current form. His opposition has put him directly against a powerful bipartisan coalition of backers that includes the White House, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Koch brothers.

The concerns raised by Perdue and his colleagues ultimately helped pump the brakes on what has been hailed as the most substantial criminal justice overhaul in a generation. It also catapulted Perdue, who ran on the notion of being a political outsider, into the national spotlight in a new way since his upstart Senate bid in 2014.

Policy changes

Gov. Nathan Deal has built his political legacy on criminal justice issues at the state level. He’s helped steer millions in recent years toward programs aimed at combating criminal relapse and urging judges to move away from stiff mandatory minimums.

Watching as first a businessman and now as a first-term lawmaker, Perdue said many of his views on sentencing and criminal justice fall in line with the governor’s.

“I’m fully supportive of what Governor Deal is doing, and that’s the principle that I was trying to bring under the smarter sentencing bill,” Perdue said in an interview, referring to bipartisan legislation he quickly signed onto when he came to Washington in 2015. Its main proposals include halving many mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug cases and giving judges more discretion in that area. It would also make retroactive a 2010 law aimed at reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine offenses, since prior statute was seen as disproportionally hitting blacks.

Months after co-sponsoring that measure, Perdue came out against a second bipartisan compromise on criminal justice issues, known as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which lifted several major components from the initial measure he backed. The latter bill quickly became the main Senate effort on criminal justice after garnering the support of several GOP senators with “tough on crime” reputations, including Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican.

Perdue said the effort, which he described as a “criminal leniency bill,” was too broad and could lead to the early release of violent felons and more serious drug traffickers. He said he does not oppose overhauling sentencing laws but that change must be focused exclusively on nonviolent drug offenders — a group he says is a small one to begin with on the federal level.

"What I want to see is that no violent offenders are included in this,” Perdue said, “and I want to see the past record be considered by judges who are reviewing the case.”

Perdue joined with Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — who also backed the initial sentencing bill — and a few others on the Senate Judiciary Committee to try to change the bill, but their amendments were rejected. Their opposition truly spilled into public view earlier this year after Perdue and several other colleagues circulated a letter highlighting the case of an Ohio man who brutally killed his ex-girlfriend and two young daughters after his sentence for felony drug trafficking charges was reduced, implying that passing the legislation could lead to other similar scenarios.

Other opponents of the bill include a group of more than three dozen former federal law enforcement officials who wrote to Senate leaders late last year warning the measure would create “significant risks to public safety.”

“The bill will prospectively and retroactively release significant numbers of dangerous criminals from federal prison and realign our sentencing structure in profound ways,” the group, which included former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush-era U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, stated in its letter.

Cornyn, the former Texas attorney general, countered that their argument about violent felons being released early was simply “not true,” but the damage had already been done. Enough senators expressed reservations that consideration slowed.

Backers of the criminal justice bill are reportedly circulating a new version with changes aimed at winning the support of doubters such as Perdue. In the meantime, the future of the bill, which has long been viewed as Congress’ best chance of passing any meaningful bipartisan legislation in this contentious election year, is unclear at best.

Closing window

Proponents of criminal justice efforts on both the national and state levels are pressuring Perdue to change his mind on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act given that he backed the initial sentencing bill. Many are worried that the opposition that’s been voiced has taken the wind out of the sails of a federal overhaul that after years of fits and starts had all the right ingredients for enactment.

Perdue’s “vehement opposition to a more modest bill is perplexing and deeply disappointing,” said Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit focused on rolling back many of the more far-reaching components of the war on drugs.

“The bottom line is that he was for sentencing reform before he was against it,” Collins said.

Karen Callen, a member of the Atlanta chapter of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish group focused on justice issues, said backers of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act should not make additional compromises to accommodate skeptics such as Perdue.

“It really is targeted to low-level nonviolent drug offenders, and it’s a really big compromise,” Callen said.

Notably absent from this debate in any major public capacity has been Deal.

The governor frequently speaks to audiences outside of Georgia about what has been accomplished on the state level. While he’ll talk generally about being supportive of efforts to overhaul the federal system — a frequent joke he cracks is that the U.S. government is finally catching up to Georgia — he’s steered clear of making any specific policy recommendations for Congress or pushing the Georgia delegation to vote for or against specific bills since the state and federal systems are so different, said Jen Talaber Ryan, Deal’s spokeswoman. The staffs of Georgia lawmakers are in constant contact about that and myriad other issues, though, aides said.

“The governor is very supportive of these efforts up at the federal level to overhaul the criminal justice system. But as far as guidance goes, the systems are so different I don’t know if there’s a way that the feds could completely model on what they’re doing after us entirely,” Ryan said. “It’s really not an apples-to-apples comparison.”