Asa Hutchison, former Congressman and U.S. Attorney from Arkansas, hopes Oklahoma will get “right on crime”

Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchison, an Arkansas Republican, quietly visited Oklahoma City last week to encourage fellow conservatives to support Speaker of the House Kris Steele’s major effort to press the state’s criminal justice system in a direction national conservatives have deemed “right on crime.” 

Hutchison was the youngest U.S. Attorney in America in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan made him the federal crime fighter in the Land of Opportunity.  Like his former boss, Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Hutchison has been advocating for alternatives to incarceration for many non-violent crimes, and wiser use of limited taxpayer resources. 

CapitolBeatOK caught up with the effective former prosecutor, now working in private practice, at the Oklahoma Judicial Center, offices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. In an interview, Hutchison said, “My experience has led me to speak to conservatives to assure them it is fair to look at incarceration issues critically from a conservative point of view. 

“Certainly, House Speaker Kris Steele’s effort and concerns for justice and fairness make a good case for reform. And it is always wise to look at waste or ineffective policies. We are in a time when states face tight budgets. Conservatives, of all people, should not say that prisons or Corrections budgets are off limits for critical scrutiny.”

Hutchison reflects that his advocacy of reform is a natural development of his crime-fighting efforts of the past. He recalls, “I had been a U.S. Attorney and thought about the issues then. But it was actually when I got into Congress that I was hit square-on with some of the unfairness that was playing itself out in criminal justice. The treatment of crack cocaine vs. power cocaine was so disparate, leading to such sentencing unfairness, that I began to struggle with those issues.”

He notes, “It took Congress about 15 years to address the disparity, but finally that was corrected. I think it has led in some ways to help with an entire look at how we we were, and are, doing things in criminal justice. “

Hutchison continued, “The questions to ask include: are we overly incarcerating people, and too many people – and at taxpayer expense? I am not very different than I was as a U.S. Attorney, but I have evolved some over time. I always sought fairness. As I became more aware of some of the problems in our system, generally, it led me to adjust my approach. “

Concerning House Bill 3052, sponsored by Steele, Hutchison said he salutes conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats “for being innovative. They seek to create a system that doesn’t work without oversight, but with scrutiny, all while protecting the public and being smart about that.”

CapitolBeatOK asked Hutchison if there was any one thing he would change in federal law, if he could. Hutchison replied, “That is a great question. It is hard to point to any one thing. I would say that I believe the country needs a National Commission to look at the criminal justice system in an integrated way to seek possible reform. This has not been done since John McClellan did so in the 1960s. 

“That is what I’d like to see happen, and I would certainly be proud to serve on a commission like that. I am involved, as well, in the Constitution Project and doing a lot of policy work on that.”

Concluding the interview, Hutchison observed, “You know, 97 percent of those we send to prison are going to come out, eventually. What scares people is that they might come out without adequate supervision. So, another thing I affirm and I believe your state is working hard to assure, is that it is both moral and good policy sense to provide adequate supervision to people coming out of our prisons.”

In advocating for H.B. 3052, Speaker Steele has repeatedly stressed that roughly half of those coming out of Oklahoma prisons are released without any supervision. Steele’s measure would “reinvest” a portion of projected savings into programs of supervision, mental health beds, and other shifts in spending, and makes other reforms. 

Note: McGuigan is the editor of four compilations of essays on criminal justice policy issues, including “Crime and Punishment in Modern America” (University Press of America, 1986). This report and a February 28 interview with Robert Coombs of the Council of State Governments is part of a continuing series of analyses of criminal justice reform in Oklahoma.