Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Remarkable turn for Incarceration Nation

        It's not true that nothing gets done in Congress.

You can't have a resolution designating "National Day of the American Cowboy" and a designation of "Hockey is for Everyone Month" without bipartisan cooperation. Give our most embarrassing public institution some credit.

Sure, generally what emanates from those corridors has all the functionality of a wad of gum under a bar stool. It's not even good for display purposes. And yet, I can report that something miraculous – more miraculously, something bipartisan – is happening right now.

Without any true mandate from well-fed and oblivious constituents, players from both sides of the aisle are addressing one of America's most serious injustices.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted by a lopsided bipartisan margin – 15-5 – to reverse a tragically oppressive, generation-long build-up of our prison population.

The move to reform sentencing guidelines may be the biggest story that nobody in America is talking about, except for those senators pushing the initiative, and to his immense and lasting credit, President Obama.

Obama has used the bully pulpit of the presidency to bring attention to the insanity of mandatory minimum sentences and the warehousing of nonviolent criminals.

Recently he became the first American president to visit a federal prison. Along with principled stances on immigration, gay rights and climate change, he is showing the fortitude some of his progressive allies accused him of lacking.

With the remarkable convergence of liberals and conservatives in Congress regarding sentencing reform, encouraged by principled judges and states that have liberalized drug laws, we are seeing the beginning of a much-needed rollback of the hysteria-driven Reagan-era War on Drugs.

The good news is that the population in state and federal prisons has been dropping, from a high point in 2010 of 1.6 million – the population of Idaho – to somewhere around the population of Maine, 1.4 million. That's progress.

Don't fool yourself about who's behind bars. In the federal system, more than half – 51 percent – are there on drug convictions.

            Sentencing took off like a wildfire in the '80s when lawmakers were convinced that crack (rhymes with "black") was a scourge meriting law enforcement zeal that took on the moral equivalency of war. This was facilitated under Reagan with obscene amounts of federal dollars pumped into local agencies under the scandalously named Byrne Justice Assistance Grants. Justice. Yeah.

The Byrne program also incentivized drug busts because law agencies could confiscate assets of offenders. Big money. Big money.

            Added fruit of Reagan's quill was the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, the kind of militarization of police that begat overreaches and unbearable tension in so many American cities.

          The result of all of this was a massive build-up of our prison population based on drug raps, truly a phenomenon that future Americans will view with a shake of the head, particularly when decriminalization of marijuana becomes commonplace. And, yes, that will happen.

          Well, something is happening to reverse this, and Americans need to encourage it.

          Why would a conservative support sentencing reform? For one – cost. For another – families. Yes, anyone who worries about the state of the American family need look no further than all the children left fatherless or motherless by merciless sentencing laws. What a way to raise children – not.

          Obama also is right to urge that we rethink how we treat convicts who have served their time. The notion of rehabilitation is null and void when re-entry into society means little to no chance of meaningful employment. Obama has ordered federal contractors to no longer automatically reject job applicants based on criminal records.

          Sentencing reform couldn't be more important. The wages of Incarceration Nation couldn't be more damaging. Congress can change this. Yes, it can.

          Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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