Last week’s cascade of horrible news has left us feeling overwhelmed and emotionally drained.
President Barack Obama, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other national leaders looked visibly shaken last week by the footage from the cases of two black men killed by police and by the ambush-style slayings of five Dallas police officers.
Much of the discussion since has centered on rebuilding goodwill between blacks and whites, and on offering thoughts and prayers for the victims’ families. That is good, and necessary. But no solution to our current tensions will be complete without policy reforms in the justice system.
That is where we most need to see political leadership, but backlash from the Dallas shootings is putting a bill that is the centerpiece of national criminal justice reform efforts at further risk.
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The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would pare mandatory minimum sentences that have landed disproportionately on minority drug offenders since the 1990s. It also invests in new recidivism programs and gives judges added discretion in sentencing.
The bill represents one of the best opportunities in decades to address some of the deepest frustrations minorities have voiced concerning the criminal justice system – namely, the belief that racially biased courts and prison systems enforce a “new Jim Crow” order that removes millions of black people from the mainstream of American life.
It has drawn bipartisan support in the Senate, not to mention backing from conservative kingmakers Charles and David Koch, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union. Despite all of that, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Conservatives want to reform criminal intent standards – a move progressives see as protecting white collar criminals. Prospects in the House look uncertain as well.
After the Dallas shootings, the conservative activist group Americans for Limited Government declared: “It’s time for GOP leaders to finally just say no to the ‘empty the prisons’ agenda of Black Lives Matter and other agents of blue hate.”
That would be shortsighted. One possible way to take such divisive narratives off the table politically? Include stiffer penalties in the legislation for anyone who targets law enforcement officers.
(Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., expressed support last week for the Thin Blue Line Act, which calls for such enhanced punishments).
Bipartisan criminal justice reform would begin correcting America’s unsustainably high incarceration rates, but it would also demonstrate unity at a time when the nation desperately needs leadership on that front.
Time is running short to get reform passed this year, but it remains possible. Congress can’t change hearts and minds, but it can change some of the laws that have helped fuel protests nationwide.