Criminal justice reform is one of the few issues in which Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree. Those are welcome news, especially for Latinos and African Americans, who are disproportionally represented in jail. The possibility that excessively punitive laws from the past will be corrected seem now closer than ever.
A few days ago, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Charles Grassley (R- Iowa) introduced a bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, limiting them to serious drug offenses and violent crimes. It bans solitary confinement for youths, allows them to apply for parole after 20 years, and gives more flexibility for judges to hand down sentences below the mandatory minimum.
It is estimated that the proposal’s retroactive effect could mean that around 6,500 prisoners sentenced before 2010 could apply for parole. This is not a significant figure compared to the 2.2 million prisoners in our country. What it does is reverting a policy that for decades has imposed laws like the Three Strikes and You’re Out, which eliminated any discretion that a judge might have in reducing the sentence according to each case’s merits.
Disappointingly, the Senate bill is an agreement that dilutes the House’s SAFE Act, which eliminates mandatory minimum sentences and “over-criminalization,” and takes some punitive federal laws off the books. It is very likely that the Upper Chamber bill will become law.
But to do so it needs to overcome obstacles that are less ideological than geographical. Stricter sentences led to a wave of jail construction in rural areas that today are a source of jobs in both Democratic and Republican districts. They also drive up the number of residents, which helps in seeking more federal funds after the census count.
The meetings with prisoners by president Obama and Pope Francis during his U.S. visit highlighted the magnitude of the problem of having so many people behind bars, and without preparing them for freedom. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. This reform is the first step towards a more civilized society.