Momentum on Criminal Justice Repair

By Giridharadas, Anand | International New York Times, June 23, 2015 | Go to article overview

Momentum on Criminal Justice Repair


Giridharadas, Anand, International New York Times


The most advanced effort to change the underlying laws has sprouted in the House, from a Democrat of Virginia and a Republican of Wisconsin.

Once in a yellow moon with green stripes and purple polka dots, the divided capital of this divided country finds an issue on which it is possible, weirdly, to agree.

This summer, the United States will learn whether the overhaul of its criminal-justice system, which locks up more people than any other country's, is such a moon.

In recent decades, a bipartisan coalition committed to a "war on drugs" and a "tough on crime" stance after the upheavals of the 1960s and '70s led to a much harsher approach to American punishment -- from mandatory-minimum sentences for minor drug offenses to three- strikes laws that imposed automatic life terms on repeat offenders. The ranks of the incarcerated more than quadrupled, to 2.3 million in 2013 from 500,000 in 1980: about 25 percent of the world's prisoners, in a country with 5 percent of the world's people.

But today a new coalition is forming, grouping people like President Obama and the billionaire Koch brothers. They are united in the belief that overincarceration has proven ineffectual, wasteful and counterproductive.

The Justice Department is nudging prosecutors to go easier on the drug trade's small players. The Koch brothers are pushing to end a requirement that job applicants reveal past convictions. There are proposals in the Senate to create a commission on justice reform and to require the police to wear body cameras. But the most advanced effort to change the underlying laws has sprouted in the House, from Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, and Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin. Mr. Scott, who has long criticized "overcriminalization," is the second African-American ever elected to Congress from Virginia. Mr. Sensenbrenner is a strong supporter of mandatory minimums. Yet they have collaborated on legislation, to be introduced this month after incorporating feedback from the Obama administration, that would inject a major dose of mercy into the justice system. …

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