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Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama made the case for a fundamental shift in America’s approach to crime and punishment.
He rattled off an array of terrifying statistics: 2.2 million U.S. prisoners (that’s four times as many as there were in 1980); one million fathers behind bars; $80 billion spent each year to keep those prisons operating.
“What is that doing to our communities? What is that doing to their children?” Obama said, addressing the NAACP national convention right here in Philadelphia. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we’ve got to do something about it.”
A day later, former President Bill Clinton took to the same stage, and owned up to his lamentable role in fueling America’s law-and-order mania: the passage of his 1994 crime bill, which funded new prisons and increased sentences for many federal crimes. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it,” Clinton told the convention.
Meanwhile, in Washington, there is unmistakable momentum building for criminal justice reform, and not just on the Democratic side of the aisle. Republican Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn was busy bashing Obama over the Iran nuclear monitoring deal, but when he was asked about the President’s speech by Politico, Cornyn said: “We’ve actually been working on it for quite a while.” He suggested legislation could be coming in a matter of weeks.
Deep-red states like Utah, Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska are all exploring ways to reduce their prison populations by rolling back three-strike laws or reducing sentences for non-violent offenders.
“There’s a different feel about criminal justice all over. When the Koch brothers are talking about prison reform, you know something is in the air,” says attorney David Rudovsky, a longtime crusader for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia. “I’ve been around too long to believe anything is going to happen overnight, but it is moving in that direction.” Read more »