Pubdate: Wed, 30 Nov 2016
Source: News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Copyright: 2016 The News and Observer Publishing Company
Author: William Douglas


Tillis says he may not return if bills like sentencing changes aren't
passed Senate

WASHINGTON - Sen. Thom Tillis said Wednesday that he may not seek
re-election in 2020 unless a sweeping overhaul of the nation's prison
sentencing system is passed.

Tillis, R-N.C., has sought to make revamping the nation's criminal
justice system one of his signature issues since arriving in
Washington in 2015, leaning on his experience in pushing through North
Carolina's Justice Reinvestment Act when he was state House speaker in

Tillis said North Carolina showed that such measures could get done,
even over doubts that anything less than a tough-on-crime stance would
be politically damaging.

He told a forum on juvenile justice in Washington that "I don't run
again until 2020, and if we're not able to get things like this done,
I don't have any intention of coming back."

The crowd applauded in response.

Asked after his talk about whether he was serious about not running,
Tillis replied, "I came here to get things done."

He expressed frustration that the Senate hasn't been able to move the
Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bipartisan measure
that would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses,
give judges more discretion with lower-level drug crimes and provide
inmates early release opportunities by participating in rehabilitation

Tillis and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., are co-sponsors of the bill
sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley,

The bill passed the Judiciary Committee in October 2015 on a 15-5
vote, giving hope to many criminal justice experts that 2016 would be
the year that a bipartisan remake of the prison sentencing system
would make its way through Congress and onto President Barack Obama's

Republicans and conservatives - from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to the Koch brothers - found themselves largely
in agreement with Obama, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties
Union on the need for sweeping changes to reduce prison sentences.

But the Senate bill has been in legislative limbo. Some conservative
lawmakers, such as Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas,
suggested that reducing sentences would lead to dangerous criminals
being released.

Even a much-heralded compromise in April to ease critics' concerns
failed to get the bill to the Senate floor.

Tillis, who appeared at Wednesday's forum hosted by The Washington
Post with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he had a solution for
breaking the deadlock.

"We need to tell the far-right and the far-left to go away and have
people in the center solve the problem," Tillis told the audience. "It
is time to tell the far-left and the far-right to get productive or
get out of the way because we need to solve this problem."

Tillis and Coons said lawmakers who were resisting changing the
sentencing system feared the specter of Willie Horton, a convicted
murderer who in 1986 was released from a Massachusetts prison on a
weekend furlough program.

While out, Horton raped a woman and brutally assaulted her fiance. The
incident was used in a television ad by Republican George H.W. Bush in
his 1988 presidential campaign against his Democratic challenger,
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who supported the furlough program.

"People bring up Willie Horton or some other political bombshell in
the past, but what they're not being intellectually honest about is if
we do not work on early release, if we do not rehabilitate 95 percent
of the people who go into the prison system and come out, far more
innocent people are going to be harmed," Tillis said. "I'm not going
to play that political game. The stakes are too high."

Under Tillis' watch as state House speaker, North Carolina's General
Assembly approved a comprehensive overhaul aimed at reducing rising
incarceration costs by reserving prison space for the most serious
offenders and shifting misdemeanor offenders from state prisons to
county jails.

In addition, the state bolstered probation services and encouraged
participation in treatment programs.

Since the Justice Reinvestment Act's enactment, North Carolina has
lowered its prison population by 8 percent - or 3,400 people -
shuttered 10 prisons and saved an estimated $560 million in
incarceration-related costs, according to a 2014 report by the Council
of State Governments.

"Everybody told me when I did this that I would be cooked, that there
would be no way I could run for statewide office," Tillis said. "Here
I am."

Congress is unlikely to deal with prison-sentencing legislation in its
abbreviated lame-duck session.
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