Change might be coming. But more is needed

Yesterday, former President Bill Clinton apologized for contributing to mass incarceration in the United States as a result of a crime bill he signed in 1994.  Clinton’s apology -a marked shift from the overzealous “tough on crime” policies of the past three decades- comes in the midst of growing popular and political support for reforming the U.S. criminal justice system.

There has been a great deal of talk recently here in Washington, both officially and unofficially, by the politicians with the power to bring about meaningful criminal justice reform.  However, so far it has been just that: talk.  Rhetoric about reducing the prison population and creating a justice system that is actually just is all well and good, but it ultimately does not matter if serious change are not enacted.

To truly transform the criminal justice system in the United States, there are a number of issues that should be addressed.  These include, but are not limited to, abolishing mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses, addressing the racial disparities in the federal prison system, and providing much stronger and realistic support for former inmate to reintegrate back into society once they are released from prison; this includes job training, education, and lifting the lifetime ban on voting and access to public assistance for former felons.  Such changes cannot be brought about through the passage of one or two bills.  Numerous pieces of legislation are needed to bring about these changes, legislation that is strong and comprehensive.

Some bills have already introduced.  The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce mandatory minimums, while the SAFE Justice Act would provide a wide variety of criminal justice reforms including sentencing, policing, and prisoner re-entry.  Yet these and other bills are not enough.  The scale of mass incarceration in the United States is enormous, and it will take extensive time and work to resolve.  Even if the SAFE Justice Act, which received support today from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh.), it will not be enough.  This does not mean that this bill is not idea a good idea, far from it.  What it means is that more thorough legislation is required before the United States can truly claim the “justice” part of their system.

-Joshua Russell

MCC Washington resources on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.

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