It’s a shocking turn of events, or at least a shocking turn of phrase.
On Thursday a Republican leader in Congress actually said something on criminal-justice reform that two years ago would have been unthinkable.
He bashed our own dysfunctional system.
“We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, that don’t really in my view need to be there,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“Some of these people are in there for what I’ll call flimsy reasons,” Boehner added.
Later, when asked specifically about a bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill called the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act, Boehner said, “I’d like to see it on the floor.”
That the Republican leader of a Congress best known for gridlock, obstruction and doing something pretty close to nothing said he wants a justice-reform bill to have a floor vote represents a big change.
The bill he was referring to, the SAFE Justice Act, was introduced by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in June. The bill has the support of groups on the left and right, including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union on the left, and Koch Industries’ Charles and David Koch and Newt Gingrich on the right. It also has 36 co-sponsors in the House, one half Republicans and the other half Democrats.
Boehner’s words indicate that the legislation could be considered by the full House a lot quicker than anyone could have guessed. The bill limits the application of federal mandatory minimums for drug sentences, among other things that would reduce the prison population. Many of the ideas in the bill have already been tried in states like Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, and have worked.
Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries, told The Root Friday, “We are glad Speaker Boehner has voiced his support for the need for criminal-justice reform and the SAFE Justice Act. The speaker’s leadership on this issue is important and welcome.”
“We are hopeful that the House and the Senate will both move forward on these issues and that the result will be comprehensive criminal-justice reform that will enhance public safety, honor the Bill of Rights and treat everyone involved in the system with dignity and respect and as an individual. This includes victims, law enforcement, the accused, the incarcerated and all their families,” he added.
Boehner’s talk on SAFE has to turn into action. Without it, he risks joining the chorus of criminal-justice panels and media tours that instead of yielding new laws to amend flaws, have saturated us with endless speeches on criminal-justice reform. But simply reciting America’s embarrassing criminal-justice stats is not a substitute for action on the issue.
What made the U.S. No. 1 in the world in incarceration was bad law. And what dismantles bad law, in the case of justice reform, are new laws, good laws that dismantle the war on drugs. The U.S. didn’t become the country that holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners by accident.
It was deliberate, and those responsible are starting to rethink what they unleashed in the name of “tough on crime.”
This week former President Bill Clinton admitted at the NAACP convention that the Clinton crime bill he fought hard to get passed in 1993 was a mistake. He was supported in that effort by several politicians who have received thousands of black votes to win office and are still on the scene, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Vice President Joe Biden.
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it,” Clinton said.
“In that bill, there were longer sentences and most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend. And that was overdone, we were wrong about that,” Clinton added.
Also this week, President Barack Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison. Upon meeting with prisoners the president said, “When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made.”
He added: “We've got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who, in an environment in which they are adapting, but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are.”
Meaningful words. But more meaningful because for the first time in his presidency, President Obama is vocal and focused on justice issues and isn’t settling for his attorney general doing all the talking. But it will take more than talk to get the justice system out of the “new Jim Crow” era it is now in.