POLITICS
07/11/2014 02:53 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2014

It Took This Former Congressman Years Behind Bars To See The Need For Drug War Reform

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- A former Republican member of Congress is ready to join the fight for sentencing reform and rolling back harsh mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Only this one has a bit more experience with the federal prison system than a typical politician does.

Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), 72, is now a free man after a federal judge ended his supervised release early following seven years in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons on corruption charges. He had served in Congress from 1991 to 2005. In a letter he sent to the media when he was still behind bars in 2011, Cunningham said he planned to dedicate his life to prison reform and Justice Department reform.

Three years later, Cunningham says he has a lot on his plate: He's active in his church, he's volunteering with his local fire department, and he even says he's setting up meet-and-greets and fundraisers for Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas. (Luckily for "Duke," Arkansas automatically restores voting rights for felons once their term of probation has ended.)

But Cunningham told The Huffington Post in a phone interview from his home in Arkansas' Hot Springs Village -- which is believed to be the largest gated community in the U.S. -- that he's made time to push his criminal justice reform ideas on his former colleagues back in Washington, D.C.

"I'm not going to give you their names, but I've already called some Republican and Democrat friends of mine and told them that I would make myself available to testify if they could protect me from you guys when I come back there," Cunningham told HuffPost, adding that he was worried "you paparazzi would eat me alive" if he ever came back to Capitol Hill.

"Unfortunately, some of my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice," Cunningham said, specifically regretting votes for mandatory minimums for drug crimes that take discretion away from federal judges and give federal prosecutors a tremendous amount of leverage over defendants.

"We have taken out of the judge's hands the ability to be merciful in some reasons or to do the right thing," Cunningham 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."

"I saw kids in there who are 19 to 30. They go into prison, they maybe 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?" Cunningham said. "There's a lot of very nice guys that got caught up."

Cunningham's new outlook on criminal justice after a prison term puts him in the same camp as former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who has also advocated for reform after his own stint in federal prison. Even outside of those serving for drug crimes, Cunningham said, he met plenty of people behind bars who didn't deserve to be there.

"There was a kid in there that just turned 21, he was in a national forest and they were having a paintball fight," Cunningham said. "They gave him a year and a day, made him a felon and 20 years old. Now things like that are just wrong."

Cunningham said he's still catching up on the details of some of the sentencing reform proposals floating around on the hill, and also thinks the medical care for federal prisoners needs an overhaul.

"Prison medical is worse than Obamacare, and I'm not a fan of Obamacare," Cunningham said. He said three people he knew died behind bars, including a man named Felix who was only given aspirin for a pain in his side. He was later found to have pancreatic cancer, was taken out and died two weeks later.

Cunningham said he's done a "180 turn" on criminal justice, and wishes he could take back many of the votes he made back when he was a member of Congress.

"My Democrat colleagues would support the lawyers. We'd support the prosecutors," he said. "I think I'd vote more with my Democrat colleagues today."

Cunningham says he still hasn't forgiven himself for accepting millions in bribes from defense contractors, and again apologized to those whose trust he violated. But he said he wants to use any influence he can still muster to influence changes in what he refers to as the December of his life.

"I got a friend who told me that the only cure for politics is embalming fluid," Cunningham said. "I think that's true."

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

PHOTO GALLERIES
27 Reasons Why U.S. Shouldn't Lead War On Drugs
Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?

CONVERSATIONS