Human rights groups across the United States have increased their criticisms of the U.S. prison system over the years. While the United States boasts just 5 percent of the world’s population, the country has a quarter of the world’s prison population.
In a May Human Rights Watch report, co-author Jamie Fellner explained that “the ‘land of the free’ has become a country of prisons.” While many advocacy groups have made recommendations on how to reform mandatory sentencing and criminal sanctions, U.S. lawmakers are often reluctant to take up the issue out of fear of being called soft on crime.An unlikely pairing in the U.S. Senate is fighting this trend.
New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker and Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul are working together on legislation, called the REDEEM Act, to reform the U.S. criminal justice system. The bill focuses on addressing problems with adolescent imprisonment and nonviolent offenders.
First, the REDEEM Act would urge states to keep juveniles separate from the adult criminal justice system. For example, it would expunge or seal records with nonviolent offenses and severely limit solitary confinement, which has been found to have adverse psychological, physical, and developmental effects on juvenile prisoners.
Second, the bill would allow a path for adults with nonviolent offenses to seal criminal offenses and would restore food stamp and welfare benefits for low-level drug offenders who have successfully completed their sentences. This part of the legislation is aimed at helping prisoners readjust to society, secure jobs, and prevent a relapse into criminal activity.
Cory Booker and Rand Paul certainly have their own motives for the bipartisan initiative in an increasingly polarized Congress.
Booker, before he became a senator, was the mayor of Newark, a city that faces a myriad of problems with crime and incarceration. The fate of inner city youth has been a key part of Booker’s public life since his first days in public office.Paul, meanwhile, has publicly spoken of his intentions to run for president in 2016. Therefore, this legislation helps strengthen his bipartisan credentials. He also has made the justice system a focus of his legislative platform, frequently speaking about his concern with overcrowded prisons and people serving excessive sentences for minor crimes.
This position remains central to his libertarian philosophy about government overreach.
Many prison reform advocates see the legislation as a hopeful step forward. Bill Piper, the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, released a statement supporting the act, stating that “voters want reform and smart elected officials know that. This legislation is good policy and good politics.”
Lawmakers in the U.S. House have been pushing these sorts of reforms for many years, such as John Conyers (D-Mich.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
All eyes are focused on ‘tough on crime’ senators, such as John Cornyn (R-TX), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and whether or not they will support the bill. It may be a tough sell for these lawmakers, but the bill needs to make it to the Senate floor first.
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