‘A Matter of Life or Death’: Senators, Obama Unite on Push for Criminal Justice Reform

United States senators from both sides of the aisle sat together during an intimate panel Tuesday to discuss the growing bipartisan momentum to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system.

On the heels of President Obama’s clemency grants to 46 nonviolent prisoners — and the White House’s revived push for reform — the senators reinforced their dedication to furthering efforts to fix what they call a “broken” and outdated system.

“Criminal justice reform is not just a policy urgency, for many communities it is a matter of life and death,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with nearly one-third of Americans carrying an arrest record. The result is a steep financial burden on all levels of government, hitting communities with excessive price tags to incarcerate criminals for sentences disproportionate to their crimes.

“The financial costs of oversentencing are significant,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “They are, however, far less significant than the human cost.”

Currently, 2.2 million people are in U.S. prisons or jails, a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years, according to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, the group hosting Tuesday’s panel.

In addition, a disparate number of African-American and Hispanic men are locked up for nonviolent drug crimes—more than 60 percent of those currently incarcerated are ethnic minorities.

“When I walk past the Supreme Court, and see those words ‘equal justice under law,’ I know in my heart we’re just not living up to those words,” Booker said.

He added the U.S.’s failure to reform the criminal justice system “casts a long shadow over the soul” of America.

Momentum to reform the U.S. criminal justice system has been building over the last few years, as a bipartisan coalition in Congress is banding together to push forward with legislation that would relax sentencing policies put in place in the 1980s by politicians wanting to be tough on crime.

Senator Johnson Cornyn, R-Texas, left, talks with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on criminal justice reform, July 14, 2015. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

Senator Johnson Cornyn, R-Texas, left, talks with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on criminal justice reform, July 14, 2015. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

The Senate Judiciary Committee is finalizing two bills that would reform the system. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who both sat on Tuesday’s panel, drafted legislation that would reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders who take part in programs such as rehabilitation and job training.

Cornyn said the programs would give criminals an alternative to a “life of crime,” which would lead to a reduction in repeat offenders.

“Eventually the people who go to jail or our prisons get out. The question is, are they going to acquire the skills they need in order to become productive members of our society?” he said.

Lee and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are pushing a sentencing reform package that would reduce minimum mandatory sentences in specific nonviolent drug cases. Lee and Cornyn said they hope to bridge the two bills into one once final revisions are made in committee.

“This is not about pampering. This is about making sure that when we devote scarce resources that we have within our government to fighting crime, we want to make sure it’s actually doing that,” Lee said.

Cornyn said it is very likely a final package could be sent to President Obama’s desk for a signature this year.

The president is already promoting the issue on his own, using this week to call for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.

He commuted the prison sentences of 46 drug offenders Monday and focused his speech before the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia Tuesday on the need for reform.

He is also traveling to a federal prison in Oklahoma Thursday to further highlight a need for reform, becoming the first sitting president to make such a visit.

“Our criminal justice system isn’t as smart as it should be. It’s not keeping us as safe as we should be. It is not as fair as it should be,” Obama said before the NAACP. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it.”

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