Editorials

Bill awaiting U.S. Senate action would curb mass incarceration

The U.S. Senate’s two black members, Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican (right), and Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, helped carve the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill awaiting action from the body.
The U.S. Senate’s two black members, Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican (right), and Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, helped carve the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill awaiting action from the body. The Associated Press

The uproar on Capitol Hill over House leadership is providing high drama, but a much quieter development of recent days has the potential to greatly improve lives and society.

A powerful and bipartisan group of senators on Sept. 30 introduced a bill that would significantly reform sentencings and criminal justice policy.

Among other things, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would reduce prison time for some persons convicted of nonviolent crimes, help offenders prepare for life outside of prison and allow more discretion for federal judges. Many judges have complained that laws passed over the last couple of decades have forced them to hand down sentences that are out of proportion to the crimes committed and some defendants’ criminal histories.

The bill also calls for reforms in the way the criminal justice system treats juvenile offenders, including a ban on solitary confinement.

The significant legislation was made possible because of an unlikely alliance of senators. Liberal Democrats who believe current sentencing laws discriminate against minorities and the poor signed on. So did conservative Republicans and those with libertarian inclinations who see America’s burgeoning prison population as a fiscal problem and, for some, an example of federal government overreach.

For once, the interests of senators from both political parties even align with the priorities of the White House. President Barack Obama and his current and former attorneys general have called for fairer criminal justice policies that reserve long prison terms for serious offenders but seek to better reintegrate persons who commit drug and other nonviolent crimes into society.

The Justice Department announced this week it would release 6,000 prisoners serving time on drug crimes at the end of this month. Though primarily for the purpose of reducing prison overcrowding, the anticipated release is also a recognition of shifting policy concerning drug crimes. In a separate initiative, Obama has granted clemency to 89 drug offenders so far.

Mass incarceration has profound and harmful consequences. It rips apart families and forces children to grow up without parents; the heaviest impact falls upon poor and minority communities. While the U.S. population has grown by about a third since 1980, the size of the federal prison population has ballooned by about 800 percent and costs taxpayers about $9 billion a year.

It’s encouraging to know that a polarized U.S. Senate can come together to work on something as substantial as criminal justice reform. A similar feat was achieved in Missouri two years ago, when the General Assembly agreed on comprehensive changes in the criminal code.

In a perfect world, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would get top billing in the Senate and have a chance to move through the House and be passed this year.

But Capitol Hill is far from a perfect world, and the search for a House speaker may slow things down. The sponsors of this bill and Americans who champion a fairer criminal justice system must keep the pressure on to pass legislation that will reduce costs, promote fairness and enable thousands of Americans to reclaim their future.

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