The signs seem to be everywhere. After about 35 years of politicians and policy makers falling over themselves to jockey to be viewed as the toughest on crime, Americans finally seem to be waking up to the realization that a neverending march to criminalize more and incarcerate more is fool's errand. The ever more draconian way we punish people in this country is not only an expensive endeavor, it is a failing policy.
Across the country, voters have been signaling to their elected representatives that tough on crime is no longer what they want, people want to see politicians brave enough to be smart on crime. In California, Proposition 47 drastically reduced penalties for possessory drug crimes and minor property and theft crimes, passing with over 58 percent of the vote despite well funded law enforcement opposition rhetoric that painted doomsday scenarios for voters that would follow such reform. Federally, former Attorney General Eric Holder budgeted $173 million for the Justice Department's Smart on Crime initiative aimed at reducing prison populations and prioritizing prosecution of serious and violent crime.
What reformers realize is what those of us in the trenches have realized for years, the current trajectory of incarceration in the country is unsustainable and unnecessary. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. In 2002, the America became the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, where it has remained since. Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners. This is insane for a prosperous first world country.
The good news is, the trend seems to be reversing and, more importantly, for the first time ever we are beginning to see bipartisan support for an issue that has generally been pigeon holed as one for softy bleeding heart liberals. Even the Koch Brothers, the billionaire funders of the tea party who are viewed by most Democrats as almost cartoonish villains, have come out as big time supporters of incarceration reform. And they have put their money where their mouth is: donating large sums to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and other organizations involved in reform. More important than their money, however, is the influence their money buys them with Republican candidates, including Presidential ones.
For the first time ever, it seems likely that we will have Presidential candidates in both primaries who will make criminal justice reform a key issue in their campaign. On the Republican side of things, tea party darling Rand Paul has been one of the loudest voices on reform, working across the aisle in the Senate with Cory Booker to champion the REDEEM Act, which would redirect minors away from adult courts and into the juvenile court system, automatically seal or expunge juvenile records upon release, and create a path for adults to have their records sealed upon release. Here's Paul after Ferguson: "it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them." That kind of thought, stated out loud by a viable Presidential Candidate, much less a Republican one, would have been deemed impossible even 3 years ago. On the other side, here is Democratic Senator Jim Webb, who launched a Presidential exploratory committee last November and has been identified by pundits as one of the few candidates who might be able to disrupt Hillary Clinton's seemingly preordained nomination: "America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequalities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness." Webb has made clear that, along with income inequality, criminal justice and prison reform will be one of the marquee issues in his campaign.
Frankly, at this point, if a politician is still subscribing to the tough on crime thinking that has put us in the place where we are today, that is a deal breaker. I cannot in good conscience vote for someone who cannot or will not see the obvious or does not have the courage it takes to act. This is an urgent issue and the circumstances have never been better to create large scale, meaningful reform in the coming days. Cross your fingers and do what you can to be a part of this change!
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