Polls indicate that the majority of Americans support the reform of our criminal justice system. Rather than the traditional "tough on crime" stance that politicians felt the need to take in order to win election, many have now indicated a willingness to pull back. Mass incarceration has been the unstated policy here for decades. Now, with record numbers of people behind bars, many for nonviolent offenses, people have begun to wonder if that policy is wise. Now that public opinion has shifted, what other obstacles must be overcome to solve what is perhaps the nation's most pressing problem?
The biggest problem when discussing our prison problem is likely how it fits in with the political divisiveness that has defined recent elections. For whatever reason, politicians have become reluctant to find common ground with anyone outside of their political party. Even an unquestionably positive and popular issue like the need to fix our criminal justice system is likely to become a source of tension. Rather than look for a way forward, political division may destroy any hope of a bipartisan initiative.
Mandatory minimum sentencing should be an area where change is easy. It is a simple matter to find situations where individuals have received outrageous punishment because of these mandatory sentencing guidelines. They are responsible for lengthy prison stays for people convicted of nonviolent offenses. It is unlikely that many candidates for federal office will come out in support of these outdated and unwise measures, but that does not mean they will be willing to vote together with those across the political spectrum.
Criminal justice reform is a necessity. Years of increasingly punitive measures have left us with a system that bears little resemblance to justice. If the issue could be tackled in the absence of political posturing, it would likely be improved very quickly. Unfortunately, the political climate may make needed reform a difficult proposition.
Source: The New York Times, "No. 1 Public Enemy of Criminal Justice Reform: The Election," by Brendan Nyhan, 13 May 2015