A little over 20 years ago, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was passed by an act of Congress. The act was precipitated in part by the increased attention to violent crime including street gang violence and mass shootings. The bill was introduced by the federal government as part of the “get tough on crime” climate of that era. It was sweeping legislation that continues to be in force today. Among the many legislative staffers who worked on the bill was GOP staffer Kevin Ring. Twenty years later, Mr. Ring was convicted by the federal government on fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with an illegal lobbying scheme. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison and served his time in a minimum-security prison until his release in 2015.
Now the former lobbyist, lawyer, and legislative aide who fought for and believed in tougher criminal laws has had a change of heart. Looking back, Mr. Ring says that too many bills are written by 20-year-olds with no experience but a lot of opinions. That’s a frightening statement but it is true. The “Hill” is staffed by mostly young people, Mr. Ring himself was in his mid-20’s when he helped push through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Now with more experience and some prison time under his belt, he along with two other former GOP operatives who ended up in federal prison are working on prison reform. They have some strong allies in Mark Zuckerberg and the Koch brothers, who are helping to fund their initiatives.
Mr. Ring is president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), which advocates for humane and individualized sentencing. The focus of FAMM is the mandatory minimum sentencing, which allows little to no discretion in sentencing offenders for certain crimes. More than one-fifth of federal offenders sentenced last year were sentenced under a mandatory minimum sentence. Mr. Ring believes that mandatory minimums are not only inherently unfair but inflate the sentences across all offenses, even those not subject to mandatory minimum guidelines.
The push for criminal justice reform is concerned with more than just mandatory minimums. Both conservatives, like Mr. Ring, and progressives have been involved in this effort. There is momentum nationwide, not just in the federal government, by at the state level too, to reevaluate the “get-tough-on-crime” legislation that swept the country in the 1990s. For its part, California has been enacting legislation over the past few years that seeks to address inequities in the criminal justice system and hopefully find a better way to punish and rehabilitate those who have been convicted of crimes, particularly non-violent crimes. This year, the governor signed a package of bills that are directed at criminal justice reform including parole reform, repeal of sentence enhancements for certain drug convictions, more protections for juvenile offenders, and judicial discretion on previously mandatory sentence enhancements.
Together with other groups, both conservative and progressive, FAMM is pushing for prison reform in Washington. The U.S. Sentencing Commission itself, which is the body tasked with establishing the federal sentencing guidelines pursuant to the federal law urges Congress to carefully consider any future legislation enacting mandatory minimums to ensure the minimums are warranted and are not excessively severe.
While Mr. Ring and some of his fellow reform advocates came to understand the need for justice system reform first-hand, many others, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as well as everyday citizens, are beginning to understand what Mr. Zuckerberg believes: the criminal justice system isn’t working. As Mr. Zuckerberg noted on a recent visit to San Quentin, mass incarceration is not going to solve our country’s problems.
William Weinberg is a criminal defense attorney practicing in Irvine, California. You can contact him for a free consultation about your criminal matter at (949) 474-8008 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.