Friday, October 21, 2011

Republican Senators: No to prison reform

I know that yesterday Republican Senators blocked a vote on the section of the American Jobs Act that would have created/protected 400,000 jobs for teachers, fire-fighters and police officers and was paid for by adding a 0.5% surtax on millionaires. I'm just as angry about that as anyone else.

But on Wednesday, Republican Senators also blocked Sen. Jim Webb's bill that would have created a bi-partisan commission to make recommendations on criminal justice reform. I have not always been a big fan of Senator Webb. But on this issue he has shown courage and persistence in taking on something that no one else wants to touch, but clearly needs to be addressed. From his web site:

Why We Urgently Need this Legislation:

* With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses 25% of the world's reported prisoners.
* The number of incarcerated drug offenders has soared 1200% since 1980.
* Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.
* Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many of them foreign-based, and Mexican cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.
* Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often nonexistent, undermining public safety and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society.

Irregularities and inequities in America’s criminal justice system challenge our notions of fundamental fairness. Even with historically large numbers of people in prisons and jails, the percentage of Americans who believe crime is worse than the previous year has steadily increased over the last decade, rising to 74 percent last year. Americans depend on the criminal justice system to maintain our safety and security. Our nation’s citizens expect it to be reliable and fair, in addition to being effective at deterring crime and punishing offenders. Enacting the National Criminal Justice Commission Act will take the long-overdue step of undertaking a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system, producing recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.

While I think that the 4th bullet point above is a bit of a nod to ugly nativist sentiments, the rest of that list is true and quite compelling.

Of course one of the reasons it takes courage to tackle an issue like this is that the brunt of the inequities Webb talks about are felt by people of color - mostly African Americans. Senator Webb summarizes it this way on one of his fact sheets supporting the legislation.

African Americans =

* 12% of the U.S. population
* 14% of monthly drug users
* 37% of those arrested on drug charges
* 59% of those convicted on drug charges
* 74% of drug offenders sentenced to prison

Please notice that Webb's bill would not make any direct changes. It simply establishes a commission to make recommendations for reform. But Senate Republicans stretched themselves and found a reason to object to the bill by suggesting it infringes on state's rights.

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson led the Republican opposition to the bill and made the most telling statement of all when she said that it was "not a priority in these tight budget times.” In just those few words she managed to capture a tidal wave of both ignorance and indifference. Not only are millions of individuals and families suffering because of the injustices meted out by our current system, but reforming it would actually save cash-strapped local and state governments millions of dollars.

There are two things that are standing in the way of "perfecting our union" when it comes to prison reform: racism and Republican obstructionism. We only have to notice how often those two go hand in hand these days.


  1. Thank you for highlighting this devastating problem. When expanded to include children, wives, mothers, etc. 1000s of families are destroyed. We simply must do better!

  2. Great post! I would also add (increasingly) profit and evangelism to your list of things that stand in the way of reforming the criminal injustice system.


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