Left and Right Agree on Criminal Justice Reforms; Congress Should Move with Bipartisan Consensus

Article excerpt

Byline: Alan B. Mollohan and David A. Keene, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

While Americans seem to be sharply divided along partisan lines when it comes to important domestic policy issues - take health care, immigration or the national debt, for example - in at least one area of national importance, conservatives and liberals are increasingly united: criminal justice reform.

With only 5 percent of the world's population, America incarcerates 25 percent of the world's jail and prison population, imprisoning individuals at a rate five times higher than comparable Western, industrialized nations. During the upcoming fiscal year, the federal government would spend nearly $7 billion, a nearly $300 million increase from this year, under the president's budget proposal to house prisoners and very little, comparatively, on investments to curb the deluge of prisoners entering the system.

Policymakers and opinion leaders from both sides of the aisle recognize that this rate of incarceration is not sustainable or wise and are increasingly rallying around the same common-sense solutions to improve public safety while saving money. Prominent conservative leaders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III, and President of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist all have called for an overhaul of the criminal justice regime.

Despite the growing bipartisan consensus in support of criminal justice reform, the federal government has done little in recent years to address the pressing issues of growing incarceration rates, prison overcrowding and recidivism. These issues place a heavy burden on the judicial system and on society at large. Incarceration trends are not promising, nor are estimates that the federal prison population is projected to grow substantially over the next several years. We cannot ignore the significant challenges this creates for the Bureau of Prisons and continue to believe that the lock 'em and leave 'em approach is working.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing to address rising prison costs. It's promising that Congress is talking about the issues, but the time for talk is over - it is time for Congress to act, and it should look to states for the road map.

In several states, legislators have crossed the aisle to build consensus and enact reforms on a bipartisan basis, easily outpacing the federal government. In tough-on-crime Texas, the Republican chairman of the state House Corrections Committee worked with the Democratic chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to shepherd through legislation in 2007 that increased drug treatment capacity and expanded diversion from prison for nonviolent, low-level offenders. …