By: Natacia Caton
Nearly a week after President Obama stood before Congress and addressed the Nation at the 2015 State of the Union Address, a speech in which he urged Democrats and Republicans to join forces in order to reform America’s flawed criminal justice system, members from both sides of the political aisle came together on Capitol Hill to discuss the looming issues surrounding the topic of criminal justice reform.
On [January 28th, 2015], the Constitution Project hosted a bipartisan briefing, “Advancing Criminal Justice Reform in 2015,” featuring congressmen, activists and other experts dedicated to the cause. Moderated by TCP board member and former American Conservative Union chair, David Keene, the panel included Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.); Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio); Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.); Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.); prison reform activist and author of the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, Piper Kerman; director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation, Pat Nolan; former Obama administration advisor and political commentator, Van Jones; and Mark Holden, the general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries, Inc.
The proposed bills mark a step in the right direction for conservatives and liberals united in tackling these issues. Key pieces of legislation introduced that have gained bipartisan support include:
• The Second Chance Act – provides federal funding to government agencies and non-profit organizations aiming to reduce recidivism through the implementation of support strategies and services offered to individuals on parole;
• The Smarter Sentencing Act – lightens extreme, long-term prison sentences that result from mandatory-minimum statutes. This bill will help to alleviate prison overcrowding and mass incarceration, and offer better opportunities for rehabilitation for those who commit nonviolent crimes;
• The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act – assesses and implements recidivism reduction programs and rehabilitative services in correctional facilities. This bill will help incarcerated individuals develop skills that will strengthen their rehabilitation process.
“We are the most incarcerated nation on the face of the earth,” said Congressman Davis, a co-sponsor of the Second Chance Act. Davis called for support of legislation to make it easier for individuals to return to their community through effective re-entry strategies.
Conservative panelist Pat Nolan also backed the Second Chance Act by reminding everyone that “the essential message of [the act] is that prisoners are people we should care about” and that “their future after they leave prison is something that matters to us.”
Nolan spoke briefly about his own stint in federal prison, which helped him realize that people in prison who are approaching release should be prepared to re-enter society with motivation and confidence.
Liberal panelist Van Jones credited the Annie E. Casey Foundation for its contributions in the juvenile justice field, including its role in helping to reduce youth incarceration by fifty percent with no increase in the number of offenses committed.
“We need substantive rehabilitation resources for children in the system, and for young people…so that we can get those folks out of the system, because everyone understands that those investments in those young people will yield dividends for all of us,” said Piper Kerman.
Several attendees also pointed out that incarceration does not fix issues related to mental illness and substance abuse, but in fact worsens these conditions.
Senator Franken commented that our criminal justice system is being used as “a substitute for a fully functioning mental health system.” Franken further noted that almost 11,000 people incarcerated in the nation’s three largest jail systems undergo mental health treatment every day, while the three largest mental health facilities in the nation have a combined total of 4,000 beds. Pat Nolan informed the crowd of an interesting statistic during his segment: according to Pew Research Center, 1 in 100 U.S. residents are incarcerated in prison or jail, and 1 in every 41 U.S. residents is under some type of government supervision. Nolan argues that these astonishing statistics are attributed to over-criminalization and mass government control. If the government has this much control, then why doesn’t it allocate some of its power toward investing in re-entry programs for people on parole?
Because of the limited amount of resources that people incarcerated have, it is up to the government to provide them with the opportunity to make something of themselves following incarceration. Incarceration itself does not rehabilitate people; that is the government’s responsibility.
Natacia Caton is Justice Policy Institute’s research intern. She is a graduate student at American University, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Justice, Law, and Criminology, with a concentration in Justice and Public Policy.