Partisan antagonism rules the capital, drowning out most attempts at constructive compromise. But on at least one issue, reasonable lawmakers from both parties strongly agree: reforming the criminal justice system to reduce the prison population and enable former inmates to become more productive members of society.
This growing consensus is both surprising and heartening, especially at a time when Congress can’t seem to agree on anything else. Listen, for example, to Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican from Kentucky, and Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, who have co-sponsored legislation that would seal the records of juvenile offenders and give nonviolent adults a chance to expunge their criminal past.
“I think it’s an issue that we both believe strongly in,” Paul told Judy Woodruff on PBS. “People can’t get a job because they have to check off a box saying they’re a felon. There are 5 million people who have lost the right to vote … I want people to get back to work. I want them to get back to voting.”
“There is a large recognition … that we have a criminal justice system that has gone awry, costing taxpayers too much money,” added Booker. “We’re finding common ground and having the common sense to say, you know what, if we both agree on something, let’s see if we can advance the ball by joining with our colleagues.”
They’re both right. The criminal justice system costs too much and accomplishes too little. Mandatory sentences for even minor drug offenses are the primary culprit; America now has 5 percent of the world’s people but a quarter of its prisoners. About 219,000 inmates are in federal custody, and each one costs taxpayers $30,000 a year. The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity.
But the most serious indictment is this: The criminal justice system simply doesn’t work. Instead of making us safer, it has the opposite effect.
“A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” Attorney General Eric Holder said last year. “Many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them.”
The American public clearly understands that and “appears ready for a truce in the long-running war on drugs,” according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. By an overwhelming margin, 67 percent to 26 percent, Americans favor treating drug users instead of prosecuting them.
Peacemakers in the drug wars are working on four different fronts, and the first is the states – which, driven by crushing budget constraints, are far ahead of Washington. Kentucky, to take one example, “has reserved prison beds for only the most serious criminals, focusing resources instead on community supervision and other alternatives” to incarceration, reports the Washington Post. The goal: Reduce the state’s prison population by 3,000 over 10 years and save $400 million.
As a group of conservative leaders said in a letter to Congress recently: “States are getting smart on crime while the federal prison system is missing the mark.”
The second front is executive action, and Holder has directed the 94 U.S. attorneys under his command to seek “the most severe penalties” for only “serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers,” says the Post. One tactic: Write criminal complaints in such a way that they don’t automatically trigger mandatory sentences.
The attorney general is also urging the Department of Education to revise “zero tolerance” discipline policies that can backfire because they’re too rigid. “A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal’s office and not a police precinct,” says Holder.
The third front in de-escalating the drug war is a federal advisory panel called the United States Sentencing Commission. Last month, the panel voted unanimously to adopt new guidelines for judges that could reduce sentences for 46,000 current inmates by as much as 25 months. The changes would go into effect if Congress doesn’t block them by Nov. 1, an unlikely development.
The final front is Congress. New laws, like the one proposed by Paul and Booker, are still needed. Another important proposal, called the Smarter Sentencing Act, would slash mandatory sentences and give judges greater discretion to exercise leniency in some cases. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year on a decisive bipartisan vote of 13 to 5, but has languished since then.
There is no one answer here. Progress comes in small pieces and different places. But the consensus is clear. The current criminal system, however well-intentioned, doesn’t work and should be changed.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.