On March 23, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan addressed a bipartisan audience of house interns on Capitol Hill. Speaking on the state of American politics, Ryan lamented the current lack of civility in public discourse, where rhetoric and posturing are drowning out ideas.
The speech has garnered a fair amount of media attention, primarily for Ryan’s admission that he was wrong to have labeled those people receiving government assistance as “takers.” But in his remarks, the Speaker also lamented a different misstep that he believes he and other lawmakers of both parties have made, and proposed a way forward to correct the mistakes that resulted from it.
Speaker Ryan’s comments on criminal justice begin at 19:25
When asked if he had ever been persuaded that one of his ideas wasn’t worth supporting, Ryan reflected on recent travels to some of the country’s more impoverished areas.
“One of the things I learned was there are a lot of people who have been in prison who committed crimes that were not violent crimes,” he said. “Once they have that blight on their record, that they had been in prison, their future is really bleak.
“In the 1990s, we overcompensated on some of our criminal justice laws,” Ryan continued. “We overcompensated on some of our laws where we had so many mandatory minimums, three-strikes-and-you’re-out [laws]. We ended up putting people for long prison terms which ends up ruining their life and hurting their communities where we could have had alternatives to incarceration—better means of actually dealing with the problem than basically destroying a person’s life.”
Describing himself as a “late convert to criminal justice reform,” Ryan said that he believes it is now important to go back and fix the damage caused by those earlier laws, giving those who have been affected by the previous “tough on crime” approach a chance at redemption:
That is why as Speaker—and I talked with [House Committee on the Judiciary Chair] Bob Goodlatte about this last night—we are going to bring criminal justice reform bills that are now out of the Judiciary Committee to the House floor, and advance this.
Because what we’re learning is that redemption is a beautiful thing. Redemption is what makes America work. We need to honor redemption and make redemption something that is valued in our culture and society and in our laws.
That is why criminal justice reform—something that I changed my position on from learning about the power of redemption and the fact that our laws got this wrong—it’s something we can improve. So that when a young man comes out of prison, a person who is not a violent criminal, who did something where he really needed addiction counseling, he needed some other kinds of mentoring, maybe faith, that he can go back and become a productive member of society. Be a good husband and a good father, Reach his potential. I think our laws need to reflect that.
Speaker Ryan is far from the only person to have a change of heart on criminal justice issues. Support for meaningful reforms continues to gain support from both sides of the political spectrum, as more and more politicians are seeing the damage that has been wrought with a “lock them up and throw away the key” approach. In an election year marked by rancor and conflict, criminal justice reform is one of the few issues where both parties can work together, and legitimate progress can yet be made to right past wrongs.
Prison Fellowship seeks to promote a system where justice is served, victims are restored, and those responsible for crime are transformed as positive contributors to their communities. To learn more about our efforts in reforming the criminal justice system, visit www.prisonfellowship.org/advocacy.