In a remarkable confluence of political ideas, it appears that most - indeed if not all - the currently declared candidates for President are in agreement on at least one important issue: It's time to overhaul and reform our costly, out-of-control and deeply flawed judicial and corrections system in the United States.
No responsible candidate can ignore the fact that our nation has the dubious distinction of locking up a greater percentage of its citizens than the next five nations combined. More than 2.2 million Americans are now behind bars, seven times the number in 1973. And no serious candidate can ignore the runaway, budget-busting costs of doing so - now edging past $1 billion annually in Illinois alone.
According to an April 27, 2015, New York Times article, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton all have endorsed the need to ease mandatory minimum sentence policies. Chris Christie wants to release nonviolent offenders pending trial. Scott Walker, Rick Perry and James Webb have called for expanded drug treatment as an alternative to prison sentences. Marco Rubio is pushing for laws that would make it harder to convict federal defendants without proving intent. All presumably agree on the imperative to reduce and control the overwhelming costs of running our prisons.
According to Michael Waldman, President of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, "This really does reflect a huge change in the political spectrum," adding, "There is an emerging consensus that the time for criminal justice reform has come."
Here in Illinois, Gov. Rauner has appointed a Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform to find solutions for prison overcrowding and under-staffing, the lack of education/vocational programs and inadequate health care.
To help steer the Governor's Commission away from repeating recitations about the problems, about which all agree, and toward meaningful action, The Changing Minds Campaign has created a corollary People's Commission to offer specific recommendations for changing and reforming the system.
Learn more about The People's Commission Now >>
After over two decades of calling for such changes, those of us who have advocated prison and sentencing reforms - activist groups representing the interests of prisoners and former prisoners, their families and friends - are encouraged and hope that this may signal the time when the rhetoric is finally followed up with meaningful action by government and corrections officials.
Realistically, however, we're aware that most reforms cost money, and such is hard to come by in times of austere budgets. What's more, we fully realize that changes cannot be made overnight; significant reforms will take time.
The focus of The Changing Minds Campaign, therefore, has been and will remain on what's practical, affordable and doable...now:
- Reducing prison overcrowding and prison population in general. To this end, The Changing Minds Campaign has strongly advocated the elimination of mandatory life, life with no possibility of parole and virtual life sentences in appropriate cases.
- Releasing elderly, ill and rehabilitated prisoners who are least likely to re-offend.
- Restoring rehabilitation and job training programs.
- Removing the barriers preventing ex-prisoners from rejoining society.
- Using alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent offenders. Eliminating the use of prisons and jails to house the mentally ill.
All of these goals are attainable without the expenditure of large sums of money; most if not all hold the promise of actually saving money. All that's required is political will and courage on the part of our elected and appointed officials who are in positions to enact reform.
Hopefully, judicial and corrections officials at both the federal and state level are hearing what our political leaders are now saying, and their calls for reforms combined with demands for action by the people of Illinois will spur meaningful action.