Republicans and Democrats indicated at the start of last week’s legislative term that 2015 is the year for criminal justice reform.
With an ideological split dividing President Obama and congressional leadership, you can probably expect more bickering than legislation to come from Washington over the next two years. But one of the few issues lawmakers seem to agree on is the need to reduce our prison population, now surpassing 2.3 million inmates. High-profile Republicans are lining up behind sentencing reform at the same time that Democratic leaders, including Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the new chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), announced that the overhauling of the criminal justice system is the top priority.
“We believe Congress has a critical role to play in helping to restore trust in the criminal justice system, ensuring that every American is treated equally before the law,” write Reps. Elijah Cummings, John Conyers, Jr., and Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democratic members on three powerful House committees. “This is a transformative moment for our country.”
Statistics about our country’s prison system are disturbing, to say the least. There are now more black men in prison, jail or on parole than were enslaved in 1850, The New Yorker calculates. The entire populations of Philadelphia and Detroit could fit in the bunks of our jails, Pacific Standard adds. And the costs of all these cells are staggering: Detaining inmates now eats up almost one-third of the Justice Department’s annual budget.
This growing federal bureaucracy has caused many Republicans to pivot away from the party’s traditional tough-on-crime stance. Why? It just makes economic sense. Add the nationwide anger over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the rallying cry for change is louder than ever — from both sides of the aisle.
“There is a well-founded mistrust between the African-American community and law enforcement officers. The statistics are clear. Video clips are clear,” says Rep. Butterfield. “You will see the Congressional Black Caucus make criminal justice reform a centerpiece of our work.”
As solutions, black legislators have promised to push for updates to “outdated” mandatory sentencing laws, accountability for police and “unethical prosecutors” and access to competent public defenders, says Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat.
This progressive rhetoric is expected from Butterfield’s caucus — known on the Hill as the “Conscience of Congress” — but what is unusual this year is that a group from the right, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas, Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch of Utah and Rob Portman of Oregon, are also trumpeting reform. Each of these lawmakers has introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at undoing decades of slamming criminals behind bars.
“I say enough’s enough. I won’t sit idly by and watch our criminal justice system continue to consume, confine and define our young men,” Paul, a likely presidential candidate, told the National Urban League last summer. “I say we take a stand for justice now.”
Reform still won’t be easy. Last year, the Smarter Sentencing Act, a proposal to shorten prison sentences for low-level drug crimes, and the Federal Prison Reform Act, a bill that would have given inmates credit for time served in job training and drug rehab programs, both stalled and died without a vote on the floor.
Looking ahead, any future bills will have to win approval from Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the Republicans chairmen of each chamber’s judiciary committee. Both boast reputations for being tough on crime, and both can delay any bill indefinitely with exhaustive reports, hearings and amendments. But in a hopeful sign last month, Grassley introduced a bipartisan bill with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, designed to prevent “at risk-youth from entering the [prison] system” and helping juvenile offenders already “in the system become valuable members of communities.”
As is usually the case in Washington, compromise seems to be the way forward. “There will be times when I will encourage the CBC to reach across the aisle and try to reach some bipartisan deals that will not make us feel good, but will move the needle in our communities and communities of color,” Butterfield tells BET. “The fight for the future is not a black fight, a Democratic or Republican fight; it is a fight that all fair-minded Americans should promote.”