Dean Weich refutes portrayal of Sen. Edward Kennedy as a builder of ‘Prison America’

In an Aug. 20 article in The Crime Report, Dean Ronald Weich refutes an assertion by Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa that former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was among the lawmakers responsible for building “Prison America” by enacting harsh federal sentencing laws.

Murakawa is the author of The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.

Weich, who served as chief counsel to Kennedy – and, before that, as special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission – takes issue with the subtitle of Murakawa’s book.

“No fair observer of criminal justice policy could conclude that liberals – or conservatives or Democrats or Republicans – bear sole responsibility for the spike in incarceration over the past half century,” Weich wrote. “Rather, these disastrous criminal justice policies were a bipartisan misadventure that reflected the nation’s anger and fear about crime.”

Weich noted that every crime bill enacted by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s passed with broad bipartisan majorities and with the support of leaders from both parties. He also noted that the Senate often passed crime bills by unanimous consent.

Weich also says Murakawa’s book fails to take into account the complex, collaborative nature of the legislative process, of which he says Kennedy was a master.

“Yes, [Kennedy] was a lead sponsor of the Sentencing Reform Act, but he did not write the law in a vacuum,” Weich wrote. “The bill’s text is the product of years of negotiations with [Republican Sen. Strom] Thurmond and many other members of the Senate, as well as committee markups and floor debates.”

Continued Weich: “In all of these efforts Kennedy never lost sight of his progressive ideals. But he recognized that in a legislative body whose rules reward consensus, the only way to advance his goals was to negotiate and compromise with influential members on the other side of the aisle.”

Murakawa also does not adequately emphasize the “huge influence” of the Justice Department in shaping the final law, Weich said: “It is no surprise that a bill first introduced during President Jimmy Carter’s administration became more conservative by the time it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.”

Learn more about Dean Weich.

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