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What some Republicans are saying about race and criminal justice reform

The likelihood of criminal justice reform may be rising as some prominent Republicans speak out about racism in America.

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Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan stands at the main podium as he previews the stage at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 17, 2016.

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Some prominent Republicans are engaged in a conversation about race and policing that may signal a strengthening bridge between how Democrats and Republicans approach reforming the criminal justice system.

Criminal justice reform was named the legislation with the best chance of passing Congress this session, until it stalled before Congress let out for summer recess. But some Republicans’ outspokenness on the relationship between police officers and African-Americans, in the wake of violence both by and against police officers in the past few weeks, could improve the chances for passing the legislation when Congress returns after Labor Day.

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“It’s important that we acknowledge ... there are people in this country who believe that because of their color of their skin, they’re not as safe as everybody else,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said recently on CNN.

He told NPR Friday that the House Judiciary Committee plans to bring six measures to overhaul the criminal justice system to the floor of the House in September.

“We’ve learned that there are better ways to dealing with these problems than locking up someone for 20 or 30 years. You end up ruining their lives, ruining their families, hurting communities. And then when they try to reenter into society, they’re destitute,” Representative Ryan (R) of Wisconsin told NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

Ryan’s comments preceded the latest spate of violence against the police, when a black former US Marine killed three law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge on Sunday. But in a rare area of consensus on the explosive topic, overhauling criminal justice laws has support across the ideological spectrum. It's considered a way to cut down on the estimated $80 billion a year the government spends to incarcerate criminals and begin healing mistrust between law enforcement and African-Americans, who are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.

Making a personal appeal for recognizing the inequity of African-Americans’ treatment in the criminal justice system, Sen. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina, one of two black men in the chamber, described years of being stopped by police, including seven times in one year while he was serving as an elected official, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. Senator Scott said he doesn’t know a black man of any age, social status or income level who hasn’t suffered the “loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops.”

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said it was “difficult” for white Americans to “appreciate how real” it is for black Americans to live in fear of a “situation where the police don’t respect you and you could easily get killed.”

Yet the killing of five Dallas police officers on July 7, in the deadliest attack for law enforcement since September 11, might have set back support for the reform. Even as Ryan and Scott drew attention to the legitimacy of the frustrations of African Americans' treatment by law enforcement, presumed Republican candidate Donald Trump stressed the fact that he would be a "law and order candidate," saying efforts to curtail law enforcement are "hurting the poorest and most vulnerable Americans."

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President Obama, however, is eager to sign a criminal justice reform bill during his presidency, and rally all the GOP support he can get for the cause. And he may have the needed support, come September. GOP pollster Whit Ayres told The Washington Post that the more bipartisan dynamics in response to recent police-involved killings cut through usual divide in responses, with Democrats often criticizing police brutality while Republicans typically defend police but avoid mentioning race. That newfound cooperation could conceivably speed up criminal justice reform in Congress, he said. 

This spring, the Senate announced a new compromise on legislation that has already made it through committee, incorporating Republican senators’ concerns that the original bill was too lenient on violent criminals. The bill would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, giving judges more discretion over sentencing, and create new programs allowing non-violent offenders to earn reduced sentences.

“Federal prisons are 33 percent over capacity and, at the current rate of incarceration, are projected to climb to 38 percent over capacity by 2018,” John Malcolm, Director of the conservative Heritage Foundation's’ Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, said in testimony before Congress. The funds spent on prisons are diverted from investigators, prosecutors, victims’ services, and training state and local law enforcement authorities.

“In my opinion, under our current system, too many relatively low-level drug offenders are locked up for 5, 10, and 20 years when lesser sentences would, in all likelihood, more than satisfy the legitimate penological goals of general deterrence, specific deterrence, and retribution,” Mr. Malcolm said.

The flurry of criminal justice reforms at the state level in recent years may also help the push for federal initiatives, if they alleviate concerns that granting leniency to offenders would raise crime rates and serve as a testing ground for specific policies.

Between 2008 and 2013, the majority of states both reduced their imprisonment rates and experienced less crime, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. In the 33 states where imprisonment rates decreased, crime rates fell an average of 13 percent.

For example, last year Alabama created a new felony category for the lowest level of drug and property crimes, requiring offenders to enter community corrections programs instead of prison. Alabama also instituted “split sentences,” requiring a fixed term of incarceration followed by a mandatory period of post-release supervision.

Also in 2015, Utah converted drug possession for all first- and second-time offenders from a third-degree felony, with the possibility of up to five years in prison, to a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

[Editor's note: This report has been updated to correct Paul Ryan's title and the pronoun used to refer to pollster Whit Ayres.]