A great step forward on criminal justice/sentencing reform…

We’ve been hearing for a while now that the U.S. needs to stop putting so many people in prison. It’s expensive, it’s immoral, it’s racist, it destroys families, it’s an improper fix to deal with those who suffer from mental health issues, and so on and so on. Well, the good news is that it appears there’s finally enough traction to help fix this problem. The bad news is that it’s up to the U.S. Congress to pass a bill to deal with this issue.

As dysfunctional as our Congress is, there may be hope in dealing with our penchant for putting people in jail for long periods of time. Steven Benen of MSNBC lays out the foundation for the bill:

“So, what are lawmakers prepared to actually do? From the Times’ report:

As senators work to meld several proposals into one bill, one important change would be to expand the so-called safety-valve provisions that give judges discretion to sentence low-level drug offenders to less time in prison than the required mandatory minimum term if they meet certain requirements.
Another would allow lower-risk prisoners to participate in recidivism programs to earn up to a 25 percent reduction of their sentence. Lawmakers also would like to create more alternatives for low-level drug offenders. Nearly half of all current federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes.”
Benen notes that even Republican hardliner Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa supports the changes, and in fact he is the one crafting a bill together (along with other Republican and Democratic colleagues). Lauren Fox at the National Journal also notes Senator Grassley’s change of heart on the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing. Just four months ago, Senator Grassley was skeptical at the notion that drug offenders were “non-violent” and had no inclination of making any changes regarding harsh sentences for crimes involving drugs. However, Senator Grassley is working with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) to give judges more flexibility on sentencing, among many other reforms.

Fox notes that there may be a patchwork of bills together to build a comprehensive reform package, including some from Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn and Senator Whitehouse’s Corrections Act. David McCabe of The Hill notes that the bill would “[take] a more moderate approach to reducing prison populations than other proposals that would implement reductions to mandatory sentences. It also supports programs that help prisoners avoid returning to crime after being released.”

Some have noted that President Obama’s legacy will rest on healthcare reform, financial reform and the Iran nuclear deal. This could end up being a huge part of President Obama’s legacy. The important thing is that we as a country have come a long way from the days of support for harsh sentencing (circa 1970-1995). We no longer have waves of violent crime like we did decades ago. Furthermore, we have seen the gross damages done to people of color who not only are subjected to extremely harsh prison sentences for banal things like having a gram of crack-cocaine, but are also ripped apart from their families and have their right to vote stricken from them for life. More importantly, America has the highest prison population in the world, and it gets us nowhere as a country. This type of reform needs to happen.

On another note, Mark Obbie of Slate has an interesting article about a man named Bill Otis, a conservative lawyer who is not happy about the impending criminal justice reforms. Highly recommended read.

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