Could this be the year that lawmakers really begin to dismantle the system of mass incarceration that they have been building for decades? It seems conceivable, thanks to a surge in interest from elected officials at the state and federal level, as well as an “unlikely” coalition of left- and right-wing groups that announced its formation on Thursday. The Coalition for Public Safety, as the group is called, includes organizations like the Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union along with Tea Party-aligned FreedomWorks and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. It’s backed, in part, by Koch Industries.
“We finally have the wind at our backs when it comes to criminal justice reform in America,” ACLU Executive Director Justin Romero said on a call Thursday with reporters. “It’s taken more than forty years to build our addiction to over-incarceration,” he continued. “We look forward to the work ahead.”
Where, exactly, is that wind blowing? The transpartisan alliances springing up around criminal justice reform agree on the problem: the United States locks up too many people for too long. But the allies have varying explanations for why that’s a problem, and what its origins are. For groups like Americans for Tax Reform and libertarians like Rand Paul, lowering prison populations is a means of shrinking government; they have obvious differences with those on the left who believe significant investment in social services and gun safety laws would make communities safer. So to what extent do they agree on solutions, and where is the greatest potential for progress?
In Congress, there is momentum for reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders; for limiting cops’ ability to seize assets; and for allowing some prisoners to take time off their sentences in exchange for participating in “recidivism reduction” education programs or “productive activities” like prison jobs.
But there’s one serious potential roadblock: Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which most reform bills would pass. In January, Grassley listed juvenile justice and prison reform among his top three priorities as chairman. But he’s a believer in a “tough on crime” approach to policing, and he’s particularly skeptical about sentencing reforms. “Lenient” and “dangerous” is how Grassley characterized the Smarter Sentencing Act after Utah Republican Mike Lee and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin reintroduced it in the Senate in early February. That bill would cut mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and give judges limited discretion over mandatory minimums. (A bill sponsored by Kentucky’s Rand Paul would go even further to allow judges to give exceptions to mandatory minimums.)