Dear Sen. Cotton, America does not have an “under-incarceration” problem
Why we need criminal justice reform
Our criminal justice system is broken. We regularly send people to jail for unnecessarily long periods of time for nonviolent, largely drug related, crimes. These sentences cause lasting damage even after a prisoner is released. In particular, young Americans who have any type of criminal history, no matter how minor, often face difficulties finding jobs, thus encouraging them to turn back to those same crimes that put them in jail in the first place. Enter the criminal justice reform movement, whose solitary goal is to properly punish criminals and show them a clear path to rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
During a recent speech at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) proposed putting more American citizens in jail for longer periods of time in order to fix what he dubbed an “under-incarceration” problem during a speech delivered this month. Cotton argued that putting more Americans in prison is the surest way to decrease violence. He believes his “tough on crime” approach will be more effective in dealing with violent crime than recent efforts to reform the criminal justice system by reducing mandatory minimums and shortening prison sentences. However, he fails to acknowledge that much of the criminal justice reform legislation going through the Senate is centered around reducing sentencing for nonviolent crimes.
Clearly, no one would like to see violent crime increase, not the senators pushing for sweeping criminal justice reforms, not Venida Browder whose son Kalief’s chances of a future were cut short after he was wrongly sent to Rikers Island Solitary Confinement for committing a nonviolent act, nor the victims or the families of victims whose lives were shaken by violent crimes.
The criminal justice reform movement takes its roots in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123) proposed by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Since its introduction in October of 2015, the legislation has picked up major bipartisan support indicated by its co-sponsors, 19 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Nonetheless, Sen. Cotton has been a vocal critic of nearly every piece of legislation with the goal of making meaningful reform to the criminal justice system.
These measures concentrate on improving the often inhumane and dangerous conditions in prisons, offering educational opportunities for criminals who are returning to society, and reducing the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes. Reducing sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes will decrease the number of incarcerated people, thus lessening the financial burden on the taxpayers.
The goal of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and legislation like it, is to make sure that citizens who made one, often nonviolent, mistake do not fall into a life of crime. By achieving that goal, this legislation encourages these criminals to become productive members of society. This common sense reform will allow more Americans to fully realize their potential in becoming successful in being a part of our nation.
Annamarie Rienzi is a junior in the School of Public Affairs.