Politics & Government

Texas inspired Washington’s prison reform plan. Ted Cruz isn’t convinced

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, listen as Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 in Washington.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, listen as Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 in Washington. AP

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Criminal Justice Reform

Follow all of our coverage of Washington’s plan to overhaul the federal criminal justice system, based on reforms Texas, Kentucky and Georgia implemented at the state level.

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Republicans in Washington are eager to copy Texas’ successful, cost-saving prison reforms. Sen. Ted Cruz, once an advocate for sweeping criminal justice change, isn’t sure whether he’ll support it.

The Texas Republican championed improvements to the system when he arrived in the Senate, before ditching his original proposal during a heated 2016 GOP presidential bid.

Cruz told the Star-Telegram this week he was “still reviewing the details” of a highly touted plan the White House and much of Republican-led Congress supports.

It would increase spending on prisoner job training and rehabilitation programs, give judges more flexibility in sentencing nonviolent offenders, and allow people currently in prison for crimes where the law has changed to seek an earlier release.

The proposal is crafted, in large part, by the state’s senior senator, Republican John Cornyn and modeled after programs both parties agree have been successful in cutting crime and saving money in Texas. Replicating those reforms on a national scale has become the pet issue of some of Cruz’s biggest financial backers.

“I have long been supportive of sentencing reform and prison reform... where my support was lost was when the legislation moved into the territory of violent criminals,” Cruz reasoned of his shifting support in August. Cruz’s office did not respond to questions about his specific concerns in the current proposal.

GOP leaders are still looking at changes to woo holdouts in their party like Cruz.

Pointing to changes his party had proposed that would give currently-serving prisoners a chance to apply for lesser sentences if the law has changed since their conviction — as is the case with some drug laws — Cruz said in August that it could open the door to releasing some people who need to stay in prison.

“Prosecutors all the time enter into plea agreements, sometimes with violent criminals, where they will plea to a nonviolent offense,” said Cruz, who served as Texas’s solicitor general, the state’s lawyer before the Supreme Court, before running for Senate. “The rules should be clear when a plea agreement is made.”

Cruz and President Donald Trump both ran on tough-on-crime policies in their 2016 presidential bids and outlasted a field of other GOP contenders seeking their party’s presidential nomination. During that campaign, Cruz withdrew support for a sentencing reform bill he once sponsored.

Now Trump is barreling toward a re-election race where reforms could help him court new voters, and this month endorsed the plan championed by both Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

Cruz, perhaps a future presidential contender, has yet to take a position that could irritate the GOP base, which is still catching up to its leaders’ rapid embrace of policies more commonly pushed by the political left.

“Republicans, in general, might be the softest supporters of the reforms, same with older voters.,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican whose firm Public Opinion Strategies polled the issue this month for the nonpartisan reform advocacy group Justice Action Now.

That poll showed roughly 76 percent of voters support reforming mandatory minimum sentences, compared to 67 percent of Republicans.

Cornyn and Trump have both urged moving on the plan before the end of the year, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has yet to commit to bringing it up for a vote.

Republicans who back the current plan in Washington vehemently contest the merits of Cruz’s past complaints.

They say the plan does take precautions to ensure that criminals, including violent ones, are assessed before their release. They also point to states such as Texas, where the public response has been positive to similar changes made years ago.

“This is not some novel approach of social experimenting... In Georgia, Texas, Kentucky… it’s actively working,” said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, a conservative and senior member of the House Judiciary panel, which approved a version of the plan with the support of all but one Republican earlier this year.

“The only resistance we’ve getting is from folks who basically are using fear tactics and old statistics,” he added.

Texas overhauled its prison system with new rehabilitation programs and changed its sentencing laws to allow for quicker releases more than a decade ago.

It has since lowered incarceration levels, shuttered eight prisons, and reduced the crime rate to levels lower than before the reforms.

“Any criminal justice researcher will tell you that the people who are least likely to [commit the same crime over again] are people who have committed violent crimes,” said Doug Smith, a senior policy analyst at the non-partisan Texas Criminal Justice Coalition who has studied Texas’ reforms.

“When you provide people with meaningful rehabilitative opportunities they are less likely to re-offend,” added Smith.

In Texas, that has led to a “25 percent reduction in recidivism, at the same time that they’ve increased parole approval rates for people, irrespective of the nature of the offense,” he said.

Some of Cruz’s biggest supporters have helped elevate the issue in GOP circles.

Tim Dunn, a Texas oilman who bankrolled the policy effort to overhaul the prison system in Texas gave $100,000 to a super PAC aiding Cruz’s re-election this year.

“Conservatives had kind of gotten lulled into the idea that more people in jail means we have a freer society,” said Dunn, who had not spoken to Cruz about the current plan when reached by phone earlier this month.. “We’re the personal responsibility people, we have a criminal justice system that doesn’t even allow people to take personal responsibility, it just locks them up.”

Another Cruz supporter, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, launched digital ads prodding Cruz on the issue Tuesday.

“The [plan] builds on what’s been shown to be true here in Texas,” said an ad from the group, which is funded in part by billionaire Charles Koch. “Senator Cruz previously supported many of the sentencing changes that are in [it], so we know he agrees with the need to provide deserving individuals a second chance.”

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached at adrusch@mcclatchydc.com; @andreadrusch
Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.