Criminal Justice Reform Snagged in Campaign Politics

by April 15, 2016

(Urban News Service) Planned reforms to federal drug and sentencing laws that imprisoned many African-Americans have become locked up by election-year politics.

“The cost of incarceration and a growing awareness of the problems with mandatory minimum sentences have created a diverse coalition calling for reforms,” said Kevin Ring, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Reform supporters span civil rights advocates, law enforcement organizations, numerous federal judges, conservative groups and even Republican stalwarts, the Koch Brothers. Eighty percent of American voters support ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, according to a February Pew Charitable Trusts poll.

President Obama has made this issue a priority. He issued an executive order in January to prohibit solitary confinement of juveniles. He discussed criminal justice reform in his latest State of the Union address, and pardoned 95 federal inmates at Christmas. He also became the first president to visit a federal prison.

Several relevant bills enjoy broad bipartisan support in Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 by a 15-5 vote last October.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced this legislation, which enjoys 28 Senate co-sponsors. “Our sentencing bill is a compromise that shows that senators from both sides of the aisle can come together to address a serious problem in a reasonable and responsible way,” Grassley said.

Traditional crime fighters and criminal-justice reformers debate whether drug offenders are violent. Thirty-five percent of drug offenders in federal prison had minimal criminal histories and no previous imprisonment, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, BJS also reports that 25 percent of drug offenders also used weapons in their most recent offenses.

Senator Ted Cruz (R – Texas) voted against the bill. As amended, it provides “leniency for violent criminals who use guns and gives lighter sentences to criminals already serving time,” he said before the Judiciary Committee.

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