Politics & Government

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

Senate Agriculture Committee members Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, join other members of the committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 20, 2016, as the panel approved new measures to set fat, sugar and sodium limits in school lunches.
Senate Agriculture Committee members Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, join other members of the committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 20, 2016, as the panel approved new measures to set fat, sugar and sodium limits in school lunches. AP

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 2011.

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 programs.

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

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 desk.

This is not a bill that’s letting murderers go. This is not a bill that will make the society less safe

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

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 fiancé. 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.”

In the next Congress, I’d give it even odds, and a lot of that has to do with how Chris (Coons) can manage his crazies and how I can manage our crazies

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., on the chances of passing a prison sentencing overhaul bill

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.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas