Editorial: A rare opening for bipartisan reform

The Observer editorial board

President Barack Obama answers a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 15, 2015.
President Barack Obama answers a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. AP

For once, Barack Obama and the Republican-led Congress appear ready to cooperate on a vital national issue.

It’s not the Iran nuclear deal, of course.

It’s the question of reforming the nation’s criminal justice system. It’s now clear the political left and right want changes. And no wonder. The United States, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, houses 25 percent of its prisoners.

Studies, including reports commissioned by our own government, show longer sentences don’t deter crime. Yet our incarceration rate ranks among the highest in the world.

Fueled by the 1980s war on drugs, we’ve swept far too many nonviolent drug offenders into lengthy prison sentences, further destabilizing inner city neighborhoods in the process.

Conservatives regularly ask where the fathers are in such neighborhoods. Often, the answer is simple: behind bars.

“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off,” the president said in a speech Tuesday to the NAACP’s national convention, “and we need to do something about it.”

He seeks a number of reforms, including a rollback of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.

This is usually the point where GOP leaders say the president is exactly wrong about the nature of the problem and its solution.

But that’s not happening. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told Politico his panel has been working on criminal justice reform for months, and is close to hammering out a bipartisan package that will be announced before the August recess.

Over in the House, key leaders are also moving toward reform. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is asking the right questions: “Are we sending the right people to prison? Are we doing the right things once they’re there and what are we doing as a nation to reduce the rate of recidivism … (and) to rehabilitate those who are in need of some rehabilitation?”

We are not doing enough. We need comprehensive legislation retooling our approach to criminal justice, moving federal policies away from the old war-on-drugs focus on stiff sentencing and better aligning them with today’s declining crime rates.

North Carolina leaders can testify that this path works. In 2011, facing an exploding prison population and about $500 million in attendant costs, the N.C. General Assembly adopted a comprehensive reform plan called the Justice Reinvestment Act. Aiming to reserve prison space for the most serious offenders, it shifted misdemeanor offenders from state prisons to county jails. It also beefed up probation services and encouraged participation in treatment programs.

Crime in the state dropped by 11 percent, according to a 2014 report from the Council of State Governments. The prison population has fallen by 8 percent, and the state has saved $560 million in corrections costs.

Will we see a similar breakthrough in Washington?

“This may be an area where we can have some really significant bipartisan legislation,” Obama said Wednesday. Reform won’t eliminate all problems, he added, noting ongoing tensions between blacks and police, and still-high crime rates in cities such as Baltimore and Chicago.

“But this could make a difference,” he said of the proposed reforms. “This is an area where I feel modestly optimistic.”

His cautious phrasing is perhaps understandable, given how easily political squabbling tends to break out in the nation’s capital.

Let’s hope that, for once, lawmakers don’t stick to the script.