Former Republican Congressman Advocates for Prison Reform

By Victoria Kim 07/17/14

After seven years behind bars, former Rep. Duke Cunningham wants to untie the hands of federal judges and reform mandatory sentencing.

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It took seven years in prison for former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) to have a change of heart. Last month, the California Republican completed one of the longest prison sentences ever given to a member of Congress. Now, he is an advocate for criminal justice reform.

In a phone interview with The Huffington Post, Cunningham said he has done a “180 turn” on criminal justice and regrets many of the votes he made as a member of Congress. “My Democrat colleagues would support the lawyers,” he said. “We’d support the prosecutors. I think I’d vote more with my Democrat colleagues today.”

Cunningham, who served in Congress from 1991 to 2005, was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison in March 2006 for accepting bribes from defense contractors. After spending seven years behind bars, he was granted an early release by a federal judge.

Now a free man, he told HuffPost that he has made time to discuss his ideas on criminal justice reform with his colleagues in Washington D.C.

While incarcerated, Cunningham had a first hand look at the U.S. prison system. “I saw kids in there who are 19 to 30,” he recalled. “They go into prison, maybe they got caught with cocaine or rock or something like that, and they give them 10 years minimum. What do they do when they get out? There’s a lot of very nice guys that got caught up.”

Cunningham was referring to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes that take discretion away from federal judges. “We have taken out of the judge’s hands the ability to be merciful in some reasons or to do the right thing,” he said. “I’ve heard case after case where the judges have said, ‘I wish I could help you, but my hands are tied.’ I want to untie the hands of our judges.”

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