Despite the vast ideological divide of candidates seeking the White House in 2016, there is a consensus on one issue: criminal justice reform.
Where they differ is why it's necessary.
Harsh federal minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines and tough-on-crime politicians over the past decades have resulted in what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterizes as an "incarceration generation."
The New York Times reports
that Clinton, along with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, both hardline conservatives, favor an easing of minimum sentences, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie thinks nonviolent offenders should be released before trial without bail. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb would like to see offenders receive drug treatment as an alternative to prison.
Political campaigns, including two-term President Bill Clinton's, used to be won by candidates advocating for punishing criminals to the fullest extent of the law.
During Clinton's tenure in the White House, "landmark crime legislation" beefed up police forces and prison terms, and crime dropped, but in a foreword for the new book "Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice" — essays compiled by Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law — even Bill Clinton acknowledges it may have gone too far.
"The drop in violence and crime in America has been an extraordinary national achievement," he wrote. "But plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long — we have overshot the mark."
Over the years, sentencing guidelines have skyrocketed, including harsh punishment for drug offenders.
Between 1973 and 2009, the U.S. prison population increased seven-fold, according to the Times, which cites a National Research Council study. Alarmingly, one in 12 black men between the ages of 25 to 54 are in prison, compared with one in 60 non-blacks.
The Hill reported
last year that over a two-year period Paul, an outspoken libertarian, has teamed with "diverse Senate voices," including Cruz, progressive Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker to introduce or co-sponsor legislation to reduce minimum mandatory sentences, "expand judges' power to sentence defendants below mandatory minimum prison terms (the so-called 'safety valve'), equalize the punishments for crack and powder cocaine, and reduce certain low-level felony offenses to misdemeanors, require a full count of federal criminal offenses and change the way criminal records are sealed or expunged, to help ex-offenders and those arrested but never convicted find jobs."
The issue of reform has gained rapid momentum from "an unprecedented group of liberal and conservative organizations and activists — led by political heavyweights such as the Center for American Progress and Koch Industries," according to The Washington Free Beacon
The left, according to the Times, sees it through a prism of social justice, while for the right it's more about government overreach and fiscal responsibility.
The appointment of "law and order" Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has some concerned that reforms would be minimal under his tutelage.
Grassley, according to the Free Beacon, wants to see changes, but he opposes across the board cuts in mandatory minimum sentences.
"With a heroin epidemic strangling some of our communities, and white collar criminals getting paltry sentences, the last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys," Grassley said.
More than 100 religious leaders have signed a letter to Grassley asking that he take up broad sentencing reform, the Beacon reports, while 18 conservative and evangelical leaders — including Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, and FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe — followed suit.
"Punishment should be proportionate to the offense, and should aim to restore all parties impacted by crime and incarceration," their letter reads.
"The current base mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses are not achieving these goals and have resulted in men and women serving excessive sentences at the expense of families, communities, and all American taxpayers. This disproportionate punishment violates our values of liberty and justice and is detrimental to family and community flourishing."
The takeaway is that both sides agree that "mass incarceration" is not the solution, Inimai Chettiar, the head of the justice program at the Brennan Center and a co-editor of "Solutions," told the Times.
"This has now risen to the level where virtually everyone running for president is saying this has to change," Chettiar said.
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