Column: Time to push for criminal justice reforms

At any one time, there are 2.2 million people behind bars in this country, costing $80 billion a year. Many have committed nonviolent drug crimes.
At any one time, there are 2.2 million people behind bars in this country, costing $80 billion a year. Many have committed nonviolent drug crimes.
Published Aug. 12, 2016

Americans make up fewer than one in 20 of the people on Earth, yet our prisons and jails hold about one in five of the world's prisoners. That adds up to 2.2 million people behind bars in this country at any one time, costing us $80 billion every year. Meanwhile, 70 million people — or about one-third of working age Americans — have some type of criminal record, a burden that prevents many from obtaining a job, a home or an education.

This level of over-incarceration is staggering — not just because of its sheer size, but because of its sheer senselessness. Mass incarceration does not make us safer — a large number of incarcerated Americans, for instance, are serving long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Conservatives and progressives alike have consistently pointed out that we would all be better off investing much of that money in our communities — sending young people to great schools, creating economic opportunity for families, and breaking cycles of poverty and broken homes.

President Barack Obama believes meaningful reforms that make our communities safer must target three key areas: the community, the courtroom and the cell block. We need to focus on the community because the roots of crime and incarceration are too often planted in underfunded schools and neighborhoods where jobs dried up long ago. We need to focus on our courtrooms because while serious crimes deserve serious punishment, too often, our current system leads to excessive sentences that do not fit the crime. And we need to focus on our cell blocks because those who are incarcerated in America too often leave prison with less capacity to succeed than when they entered.

That's why the president has continued to do what he can do to make our communities safer. The administration has invested in mentoring, job training and new re-entry programs. We have brought together leaders in the private sector and higher education, as well as in state and local government, to catalyze reforms — from lifting unfair barriers in the job market that Americans with criminal records can face, to promoting better ways to address vulnerable populations who make up a significant percentage of those in jail, to supporting more effective diversion programs.

In addition, the president has exercised his executive authority by granting clemency to incarcerated Americans whose sentences did not fit their crimes and who have earned a second chance. This month, he announced commutations for 214 more incarcerated Americans, including 30 in Florida.

In most cases, these are individuals who committed nonviolent crimes and have already served a significant amount of time. Our resources are not well spent keeping these people locked up. We would all benefit by ensuring they have the opportunity to become law-abiding, contributing members of society.

Now, while the administration's work has made important inroads toward making our criminal justice system fairer and smarter, none of it is a substitute for federal criminal justice reform legislation. Right now, there is a strong, bipartisan bill in the Senate that has passed out of committee and is just waiting for a vote in the Senate. We are confident the bill would pass. The bill would do many important things to improve our criminal justice system at a critical time: reduce mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent drug offenders; give judges greater discretion to make sure that the sentence fits the crime; provide current prisoners with the tools and incentives to turn their lives around; give nonviolent juvenile offenders who have served their sentences the second chances they deserve; and reinvest savings from criminal justice reform into public safety programs.

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These reforms would make our communities safer and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently reported.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker Paul Ryan has voiced strong support for reform, and his members continue to work on individual bills similar to the Senate bill. But the reality is that the clock is ticking. Although criminal justice reform has strong bipartisan support, Congress will only have a short window in September to take action before the election. The speaker has committed to bringing reform bills to the floor for votes during that window in September — and it's absolutely critical that he does so.

It would be a shame to miss this opportunity. We know mass incarceration is not good for our country and does not make us safer. And in the midst of a time that can make it feel as if there is little that unites Republicans, Democrats and independents, what better way to show that Washington can work than to pass bipartisan criminal justice reform. It would make our communities safer, save money, and better align our criminal justice system with our values — justice and opportunity for all Americans. There is no excuse not to act.

Valerie Jarrett is senior advisor to President Barack Obama and Neil Eggleston is White House counsel.