The Crimson White

New Congress should reform U.S. prisons

Rich Robinson

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The old maxim that politics is the art of the possible is on full display a week removed from the 2014 midterm election. Both parties are feeling out the political landscape to see what they can advance in the next two years. Few outside observers expect much in the way of real progress on the most intractable issues of our time. From climate change to health care to the widening wealth gap, Democrats and Republicans seem to reside on different planets. Of course, many Republicans “aren’t scientists” and may believe that is literally accurate, but I digress. With no clear mandate for either party, the next two years could be soul crushing for people like me, who believe that the federal government should be actively trying to make the lives of the American people better. 

But what if in this nasty swill, we get a few good things done for the country? What if Congress and the White House can rally behind some non-political reforms? Despite the poison and negativity of the past six years, there is an opening for big change. Reforming our criminal justice system is not a hot button political issue at the moment and that de facto détente allows for an opening. But this opening is not wide and may close if leadership in both parties don’t act now to build a broad based coalition. Here’s what I mean by reform. There are roughly 1.6 million Americans behind bars at this exact moment according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 1.3 million of them are in county jails or state prisons, while more than 200,000 are in federal custody. Thirty-seven percent of those federal prisoners are black, which greatly outpaces the 14 percent of all Americans who identified as African-American in the 2010 census. 

More broadly, many of these people are in federal prison because of super aggressive sentencing laws and prosecutorial practices. Drug charges, for example, are too harshly punished and judges have little leeway when it comes to sentencing. The good news is many lawmakers of different political stripes agree that reform is needed. The Hill reports that over the past two years, a diverse crowd of Senators have come out in support of various prison reform measures including Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ken.). If a bipartisan Senate bill can be agreed to, then the House would probably go along. And if that happened, President Obama would certainly sign it into law. The politics on this issue is easy. Republicans want a smaller prison population, which would reduce costs, while democrats want to strike at a crucial aspect of the inequality gap in America. A strong bipartisan federal example would give states a blueprint on which to work and emulate. 

Of course it is worth noting that one of Alabama’s senators, Jeff Sessions, has already come out in opposition of changing some of these sentencing guidelines. This is tragic because Alabama is one of the places that needs reform the most. The Yellowhammer state incarcerates 600 for every 100,000 people, one of the five highest rates in the country. The Senate should take the lead on this issue and strive to get a strong bill passed in the next few months. That would build trust in Washington for bigger issues, and perhaps jolt states into addressing the greater injustices spawned from America’s bloated prison fetish.

Rich Robinson is a senior majoring in telecommunication and film. His column runs weekly.

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New Congress should reform U.S. prisons