“In this time of increased political polarization,” writes Bill Clinton, “there is one area where we have a genuine chance at bipartisan cooperation: the over-imprisonment of people who did not commit serious crimes.”
Clinton makes this observation in a new collection of essays compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. He’s right on target, and for a significant reason.
Serious folks across the political spectrum are taking a hard look at the facts behind “over-imprisonment.” They’re seeing what is true, not what ideology tells them should be true. And the harsh verity is inescapable: The current system of criminal justice is badly broken.
Too often these days, politicians in both parties substitute fantasies for facts. Liberals say trade hurts American workers, when the opposite is plainly proven. Conservatives claim immigrants damage the American character, when they have clearly been enriching our culture for over 200 years.
When facts are dismissed, when reality is denied, there is no common language – no basis for conversation or compromise. The result is paralysis.
That’s why the emerging debate over incarceration is so heartening. It’s reviving one of the oldest American traditions: pragmatism. Do what works. And change what doesn’t.
Clinton has credibility here. He was president in the ’90s, when “our communities were under assault” from a vast increase in violent crime, he writes, and he helped impose draconian policies that “acted to address a genuine national crisis.”
“But much has changed since then,” admits the former president, and any “clear-eyed” assessment reveals that those policies caused “unintended long-lasting consequences.” Clinton concludes: “We have overshot the mark.”
That’s true. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, reports the Brennan Center. More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, a population larger than 14 states. Incarceration costs taxpayers $260 billion a year.
At a moment when anti-police rioting is dominating the news, racial disparities take on added meaning. “More black men serve time in our correctional system today than were held in slavery in 1850,” says the Brennan Center. “One in 3 black men will spend time behind bars.”
Presidential candidates in both parties – from Hillary Clinton to Ted Cruz – are coalescing around a reform agenda. “This really does reflect a huge change in the political momentum from decades when parties and candidates competed to see who could be the most flamboyantly punitive,” Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, told The New York Times.
Many of the key ideas command bipartisan backing:
• Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Cory Booker are co-sponsoring a Senate bill that would enable youthful offenders to seal or expunge their criminal records, enhancing their chances of getting jobs and supporting their families. The point, says Booker, is to “make sure a youthful mistake does not follow them all of their lives.”
• Paul has joined liberals like Pat Leahy of Vermont in drafting measures that would slash mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more leeway in applying them.
“Few policies have been as deeply flawed or destroyed as many lives,” says Paul. In the first major policy speech of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton called for ending “an era of mass incarceration.”
• An estimated 2.1 million ex-prisoners cannot vote, even after completing their sentences. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, has worked with Paul and other Republicans on a bill to restore those voting rights.
• Angus King, a Maine independent, and Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, are backing a proposal to limit the ability of police departments to seize the assets of criminal defendants – and cripple their families’ finances.
A number of innovations are being tested on the state level with notable success, often by conservative Republican governors. Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, reports the New Republic, has given prisoners “enhanced access to educational resources, including a program that enables two charter schools in the state to go into prisons to teach inmates.”
In Texas, former Gov. Rick Perry pioneered a plan to substitute drug treatment for jail time, and his state was able to close three prisons and six juvenile detention centers.
“Our approach to criminal justice policy is all about results,” says Perry, a likely presidential candidate. “This change did not make Texas soft on crime. It made us smart on crime.”
That’s exactly what voters want: a smart government that’s “all about results.” And they know that locking up vast numbers of nonviolent offenders in “schools for crime” is not smart.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.