In this time of increased political polarization, there is one area where we have a genuine chance at bipartisan cooperation: the over-imprisonment of people who did not commit serious crimes.
The drop in violence and crime in America has been an extraordinary national achievement. But plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long — we have overshot the mark. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now have 25 percent of its prison population, and an emerging bipartisan consensus now understands the need to do better.
It has been two decades since there was sustained national attention to criminal justice. By 1994, violent crime had tripled in 30 years.2 Our communities were under assault. We acted to address a genuine national crisis. But much has changed since then. It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.
So many of these laws worked well, especially those that put more police on the streets. But too many laws were overly broad instead of appropriately tailored. A very small number of people commit a large percentage of serious crimes — and society gains when that relatively small group is behind bars. But some are in prison who shouldn’t be, others are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities, we all suffer.
The new approach has many roots and just as many advantages: a desire to save taxpayers money; the resolve to promote rehabilitation not recidivism; an obligation to honor religious values; the necessity to alleviate crushing racial imbalances. All of them strengthen this powerful new movement.
Now it’s time to focus on solutions and ask the right questions. Can we do a better job identifying the people who present a serious threat to society? If we shorten prison terms, could we take those savings and, for example, restore the prison education programs that practically eliminate recidivism? How can we reduce the number of prisoners while still keeping down crime?
As the presidential election approaches, national leaders across the political spectrum should weigh in on this challenge — and in this exciting book of essays from the Brennan Center, many of our nation’s political leaders step up and offer answers. This, in itself, is deeply encouraging. After decades in which fear of crime was wielded as a political weapon, so many now understand the need to think hard and offer real reforms, which, if implemented, can bring about this change in the right way. To address our prison problem, we need real answers, a real strategy, real leadership — and real action. We can show how change can happen when we work together across partisan and political divides. That is the great promise of America.
Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.