He’s right. The bipartisan coalition pushing to reduce incarceration rates in the world’s most crowded prison system has been building for years, bringing together ardent foes like the Koch Brothers and the ACLU, and Rand Paul and Cory Booker, among others. Various proposals to eliminate mandatory-minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, and to keep young, nonviolent offenders from receiving long, crippling prison sentences have circulated for a while without going anywhere. Yet that movement is cresting now, providing what lawmakers and advocates say is a genuine opportunity to enact legislation before the end of the year. “I am very optimistic that we will get something done. If you had told me a couple years ago, I would not have believed it,” said Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who is not known as a congressional Pollyanna.
As usual, however, Cummings’s rosy view comes with a key caveat repeated by other advocates I interviewed: the looming presidential election. “I think the stars have aligned,” Cummings said. “I do believe, however, that if we don’t get it done now, I don’t know that the stars will align like this again.” Obama talked up the prospect of criminal-justice reform just a few days after lawmakers in the House unveiled the most ambitious and comprehensive proposal to modernize the system to date. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that Obama was soon likely to commute the sentences of dozens of nonviolent drug offenders—an act of presidential clemency unprecedented in scope that would seek to galvanize the push for reform in Congress.
What distinguishes criminal-justice reform from other bipartisan efforts is the wide range of motivations that have led a diverse coalition of people to draw the same conclusion: There should be a lot fewer people in U.S. prisons. Fiscal hawks, including the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, frequently cite the exploding costs and inefficiency of the criminal-justice system. According to an oft-repeated statistic from the Pew Charitable Trusts, federal spending on prisons rose sevenfold over the last three decades, from less than $1 billion (adjusted for inflation) in 1980 to nearly $7 billion in 2013. That increase was propelled by a corresponding rise in the number of inmates and the number of prisons.
Another libertarian complaint is “overcriminalization.” Congress keeps making new laws, which have led to thousands of different rules in the penal code that can be broken—and prosecuted. “There are now so many administrative regulations that carry criminal penalties that nobody knows how many there are,” said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and co-author of the SAFE Justice Act, a comprehensive proposal introduced in June.
Yet those arguments have faded to the background in recent months as the deaths, at the hands of police, of young black men in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore—along with the suicide of Kalief Browder in New York—have once again illuminated the inequities that draw a disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic men into the criminal-justice system at an early age. The financial cost is significant, acknowledged Senator Mike Lee, the Tea Party conservative who has joined with Democrats to push for a reduction in mandatory-minimum sentences. “The even more significant and more compelling component of this is the human cost,” Lee told me, “the number of husbands, fathers, sons, uncles, brothers throughout the country who are locked up for sometimes years and decades at a time.”