WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis has joined a group of unlikely allies in trying to reshape the criminal justice system.

The Minnesota Republican has teamed up with U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, to advocate changes to federal law that would favor rehabilitation over imprisonment for first-time, nonviolent offenders — particularly juveniles — and reduce exploding incarceration budgets. Groups as ideologically diverse as the NAACP, FreedomWorks, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the American Conservative Union all back their proposals.

A freshman congressman from a political swing district, Lewis has in recent months highlighted several areas where his libertarian sensibilities have broken with the law-and-order orthodoxy of the Republican Party. He believes states should be permitted to legalize marijuana, at a time when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to get tougher on marijuana crimes.

And, in embracing sentencing reforms, Lewis has emphasized the spiraling costs of a large federal prison population. Sessions has also publicly resisted calls for prison sentencing reforms.

"The bottom line is the budget is getting out of control and the number of people being incarcerated is getting out of control," Lewis said.

Several efforts are underway in Washington to provide more support for prisoners. Several weeks ago, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bipartisan First Step Act to provide more resources for inmates in an effort to prevent them from committing new crimes once they are released — a bill championed by President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Lewis and Scott describe their own proposals as the most comprehensive approach.

"Criminal justice reform, reducing crime and saving money — that's a position that Jason has adopted, and I think we can make some progress working together in the House," Scott said in an interview. "We don't belabor the fact that we disagree on a lot of the other issues."

The pair met last year while serving on the House committee overseeing health, education, labor and pensions. Scott, who has served in the House since 1993, was looking for a Republican to partner with on criminal justice reform. They started with the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, aiming to boost education and training for at-risk youth and juvenile offenders instead of imposing harsh penalties for minor infractions.

On its way to law

The House passed their measure, and the Senate approved a similar bill. It also provides more accountability in how congressional funds are spent on the program.

Lewis said he hopes to see the juvenile justice measure signed into law. "I think that's what I was sent here to do," he said.

The tougher move will be achieving adult criminal justice reform. After working together on juvenile justice, Scott solicited Lewis to join him sponsoring the Safe, Accountability, Fair and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, which aims to improve sentencing and probation policies and to invest more in crime prevention. It would focus use of mandatory minimum sentences on leaders and supervisors of drug trafficking organizations and save prison space for violent career criminals in an effort to stop what its backers call "over-criminalization."

Much of the discourse around criminal justice reform, as Scott sees it, "is focused on poll-tested slogans and sound bites combined with fearmongering, and you get to the point where the entire system makes no sense because it's not based on any evidence or research."

In April, Lewis participated in a criminal justice forum at the Minnesota Capitol, along with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell, and Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network.

"People are always saying Washington has no bipartisanship," Lewis told reporters the day of the forum. "Here's a classic example of finding where … good policy makes good politics."

He emphasized that locking somebody up is the most expensive option, and that incarceration rates disproportionately affect communities of color. Asked later about support from Minnesota leaders, Lewis said that while the law enforcement community has been supportive, politicians have been timid about supporting such measures, especially on the right.

"This is one of the few areas where Jason Lewis and I agree," said Angie Craig, his DFL challenger in the November election. Lewis is expected to face one of the most competitive elections in the nation in his bid for a second term. "We must work to refocus our judicial system on restorative justice, especially for the youngest offenders," said Craig.

Surprise ally

The measures have the backing of FreedomWorks, an organization that describes itself as promoting free markets and individual liberty; the group named Lewis its member of the month in January.

"Jason Lewis carried the banner and it's just been a pleasant surprise … we have a new champion that we didn't anticipate or expect," said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks.

Pye said it's a tough environment given that Sessions is openly resistant to sentencing reform "and continues to insist on an antiquated point of view that rests on the idea that we need to warehouse people for a long time."

"Comprehensive bills sometimes are difficult to pass … there's nothing wrong with passing comprehensive legislation piece by piece," said Rep. Scott.

Scott said he heard from some experts that the Kushner-backed prison bill "is gratuitously complicated." He also has doubts about a sentencing reform and corrections initiative sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, saying that it expands the eligibility for mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Grassley has said it's tough on crime while promoting fairness in sentencing.

Lewis, for his part, said he'd reserve judgment on the other bills. But he hopes that if the juvenile justice bill is worked out in a conference committee and signed into law, that will offer momentum for the SAFE Justice Act, which has 15 cosponsors so far.

"I do think people are leery of too much law … on the other side, 'lock them up and throw away the key' doesn't work," Lewis said. "You end up turning first-time, nonviolent offenders into hardened criminals, and you don't want to do that."

Maya Rao • 202-662-7433