Is the nearly 40-year-old, bipartisan "let's get tough on crime" mantra getting old-- even for politicians? On the campaign trail Barack Obama and John Edwards are now warning of the dire consequences stemming from the rise in the incarceration rates for African-American men and boys. This week the Supreme Court heard arguments against five-year mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine dealers.
And on Thursday, the Senate Joint Economic Committee held the first hearing that reform advocates and legislative staffers can remember on the social and economic harms that come from having the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens in the world. Both lawmakers and witnesses explicitly connected the explosion in the prison population to the so-called "War on Drugs." One damning statistic after another was given:
-The number of incarcerated citizens has gone from 250,000 at the dawn of the drug war to a current 2.3 million.
-Despite making up 13 percent of the overall population, half of all current prisoners are black.
-While blacks are not shown to use drugs more than whites, they are four times as likely to be arrested for possession or dealing.
These facts are nothing new. What is new is that the sociologists and prison reformers were reciting these stats not at university lecture halls but to Senators who write criminal law. And Kansas Republican and long-shot presidential candidate Sam Brownback was pushing his Recidivism Reduction and Second Chance Act of 2007.
Brownback and several Republican and Democratic co-sponsors want to provide federal grants for job training, substance abuse treatment and other social re-entry programs to some of the more than 650,000 inmates who leave prison each year. As the prominent Christian conservative pointed out, two-thirds of all inmates currently return to prison in three years.
While Brownback's bill seems the kind of "compassionate conservative" policy President Bush once promised, a fiscal conservative argument for prison reform has also emerged. Building and operating prison is the only part of state budgets beside Medicaid to have grown in the past 20 years. States spent $9 billion on prisons in 1984-- and spent $41 billion in 2004.
At the hearing, Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia endorsed Brownback's legislation and spoke broadly on the issue, saying, "The American public needs to understand the cultural divisions of the problem." He noted that the U.S. has more than ten times the percentage of its citizens incarcerated then other developed countries.
Witness Pat Nolan, Vice-president of the advocacy group Prison Fellowship, testified that imprisonment has strayed much too far from the intention of public safety. "Prisons are supposed to be for people we're afraid of," he argued, "But instead they're for people we're mad at."
Not every legislator will immediately sign-up for the Prison Fellowship mailing list, but all-in-all it was an auspicious week for beginning to shed light on the broken criminal justice system.