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Welcome To The Age Of Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform

Commentators might bemoan the ever-growing list of presidential candidates. But adding more voices means more, different policy proposals. And before a single ballot has been cast, candidates are already engaging in the “ideas primary,” the contest over what issues will shape the campaign, from the Green New Deal to Medicare for All.

Absent, until now, was any big idea to address mass incarceration and the immoral overuse of prison and jail in our justice system.

That changed this week, when twenty activists and political leaders set out their vision for how to restore balance to America’s criminal justice system in a new book of essays released by us at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Rather than tinkering around the edges, their proposals strike directly at the heart of our unjust justice system. It’s clear that the authors — many of whom are now running for president — know voters are tired of small steps.

A marginal issue mere years ago, ending mass incarceration is now at the center of American politics (see, for instance, the debate over the 1994 Crime Bill). With the election about to kick off, it’s up to the candidates to keep this debate going.

With 2.2 million people in the nation’s jails and prisons, America continues to incarcerate more people than any western democracy, disrupting families and plunging communities into poverty. Once policymakers — including the current Attorney General — viewed this as a good thing, rather than the crisis it is.

Now, decades after the “war on drugs” quadrupled the nation’s prison population, Americans are second-guessing the wholesale warehousing of millions, many of them people of color. We now know, for example, that more prisoners does not mean less crime. We also know it’s possible to reverse course; 27 states have managed to reduce crime and incarceration. And we know that the culture of punishment that grew around mass incarceration contributes to the dehumanization and impoverishment of people of color, something Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Derrick Johnson of the NAACP (who all make appearances in this week’s book) have chronicled. and fought. Rashad Robinson of Color of Change puts it bluntly: we need a culture change.

What’s to be done? Sweeping solutions and federal leadership remain rare. The sentencing reforms in last year’s First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump, will affect fewer than five percent of people entering federal prison annually. Mass incarceration is a big problem in search of big solutions.

That’s what the authors of this week’s volume provide. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand lays out a plan to outright eliminate imprisonment for lower-level crimes. The proposal, she notes, would disproportionately benefit women; research finds that 36% of women in federal prison would be better served by alternatives to incarceration. Julián Castro writes about ensuring people can find housing, fairly, upon their release from prison, helping to break the cycle of recidivism. And several authors highlight how the justice system favors the rich, with Sen. Kamala Harris demanding better funding for public defenders (and better incentives for prosecutors); Sen. Elizabeth Warren calling for bail reform and getting “tough” on white-collar rather than drug offenders; and Sen. Bernie Sanders detailing the corrosive effect of the profit motive on prisons.

Far from idle musings, each author provides a concrete plan to address the harms they identify. Just ask Sen. Cory Booker, whose Next Step Act, already introduced in Congress, reads as a wish-list for reform advocates and includes incentivizes for states to reduce their own prison populations.

Some solutions come from surprising places. Overhauling the agency that runs federal prisons and tasking it with rehabilitation rather than punishment — that’s the sort of idea you’d expect from the far-left. But in this week’s book, it comes from Mark Holden, a senior official at Koch Industries (not considered a bastion of socialism). Jared Kushner even makes an appearance, promising to “fully implement the First Step Act.” You might be skeptical, and for good reason. We aim to hold him and his father-in-law to that commitment.

Candidates who want to fix our economy should take note: At its core, mass incarceration is an inequality issue, contributing significantly to black unemployment and dragging down the job and earning prospects of anyone with a criminal record. Under-employment among justice-involved people costs the country more than $87 billion annually, a loss felt predominantly by people already in poverty. And criminal justice reform resonates deeply with communities of color, who know all too well that “racism permeates every aspect of the system,” as Alicia Garza puts it in her essay.

To be sure, mass incarceration is far from the only problem in our society today. But its effects exacerbate inequities across the country.

Beneficial or at best invisible to the powerful, but all-consuming for the most vulnerable Americans, mass incarceration is a civil rights crisis that cries out for redress. And the authors in this book are a symbol of the widespread consensus that bigger and bolder solutions are needed to fix the problem. Democrats and Republicans alike ignore this call to action at their peril.

Adureh Onyekwere is a Research and Program Associate in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. She served as associate editor for “Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders”. Grawert is Senior Counsel and John L. Neu Justice Counsel in the Program.

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