I’ve said some unpleasant things about Bill Otis here from time to time, so it’s only fair that I note his profile by Mark Obbie at Slate, where he’s lauded as “the last man standing who thinks criminal justice reform is a terrible idea.” Or, as I’ve mentioned in the past, a guy who thinks life for jaywalking sends an inadequate message.
Otis is portrayed in the post as someone with a “pugilistic” style, who is unafraid to take on anyone who challenges his simplistic view that if you lock all the criminals up forever, problem solved. That’s not quite my experience with Bill, which is that he’s the typical schoolyard bully, picking only on people he knows he can push around. When faced with someone who pushes back, he runs away. Typical coward.
But Bill Otis has two things I don’t have. The first is a profile in Slate. The second is Chuck Grassley’s ear.
Exactly what role Otis plays is the subject of intense speculation among reform advocates, many of whom believe that Otis has the ear of Grassley. (None would say so on the record out of fear of alienating Grassley and his staff.) Though Grassley said this week that his committee would endorse a bipartisan reform bill, its scope and ambition remain a mystery. While advocates may be heartened that Grassley may finally be coming around, they should see what he’s offering before doing too much crowing. Up until this point, the Iowa Republican has vigorously opposed reform at every turn. When the Senate Judiciary Committee was in Democratic hands last year, Grassley failed to defeat the Smarter Sentencing Act in committee but waged a successful campaign to block a floor voteuntil the clock ran out on that Congress.
Grassley’s power over the fate, and form, of Congressional action makes Otis’ longtime relationship with Fred Ansell, Grassley’s key criminal-policy aide, an envied platform as the debate proceeds. Otis will say only that he has known Ansell for many years, and both men refused to talk about any discussions they have had about pending legislation. A spokesman for the Iowa senator said that “Senator Grassley’s positions are not informed by just one or even a small handful of sources.”
Otis claims that whatever influence he has comes from his ability to write what many others are thinking—that, he says, “would not make me Rasputin”—and because he’s practically the last man standing on his side. “I am one of the few academics—I may be the only vocal academic—that takes a pro-prosecution view of this,” Otis says. “So it’s not that I’m any great genius or it’s not that I have friends all over Capitol Hill. It’s that I’m the only place to go.”
What few realize is that one guy, a Senator from Iowa, owns reform, because he’s the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and no change, no bill, no law, happens without his approval.
Otis is a regular at Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy, where he spews:
Last year he bucked conventional wisdom at the time to confidently predict the defeat of the Smarter Sentencing Act in a guest post on Berman’s blog. When challenged by a commenter for proof, Otis replied: “My info is not from statistics or a study. I know people you don’t, and who are better positioned to know than any statistics or study would be. That’s as much info as you’re going to get. … Where I get my information about the lay of the land in Congress is none of your business. If I started naming on the Internet the people in this town who talk to me, they wouldn’t be talking to me very long, now would they?”
But Bill Otis got profiled at Slate, and Bill Otis has Grassley’s ear. And I don’t, and you don’t. And that’s that. The reforms being proposed in Congress are tepid and piecemeal, because we’re all verklempt over the nonviolent first-timers for low-level offenses. Like applauding the president for pardoning a handful of people, when tens of thousands should be cut loose, we pick up bread crumbs and pat ourselves on the back for our awesomeness.
If this hasn’t seeped through yet, let me say it clearly: even if reform happens, it will be trivial and worthless. And even that may not happen if it’s up to Otis and Grassley. Sorry if this makes you sad, but it’s reality.