OTHER VOICES: Grassley is right on need for sentencing reform

August 24, 2018

Don’t back down, Sen. Grassley. Sentencing reform is a must for any meaningful rebuild of the American justice system.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is under pressure to abandon his right-minded campaign to overhaul the American criminal justice system. In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions threw shade at Grassley’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, garnering a rare full-throated rebuke of the White House from Iowa’s senior senator. And, now, right-wing special interests, including Washington-based conservative think tank Conservative Partnership Institute, are calling on Grassley to instead back a House plan, which is notably void of the initiative’s key element: reforming or doing away with draconian sentencing guidelines that disproportionately send minority groups to prison for unnecessarily long stints.

“Some advocacy groups among the left are flexing their ‘resistance’ muscles in opposition of the FIRST STEP Act, saying that because it lacks sentencing reform, it doesn’t go far enough to amount to a meaningful effort,” wrote Conservative Partnership Institute President and former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint in an op-ed published Sunday in the Quad-City Times.

Grassley’s bid to rein in mandatory minimum sentences — which have sent thousands of non-violent drug offenders to prison for extended terms — is justified by the facts and bolstered by an ethical imperative that the justice system at least attempt to treat all Americans similarly.

Right now, it doesn’t.

Prisons are expensive. Housing a single federal inmate annually cost more than $34,000 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. All told, states and federal prisons cost the American taxpayer a whopping $182 billion every year, money sunk into a black hole of recidivism and bad outcomes. And it should come as no surprise that, throughout the country, black men in particular are strikingly over-represented in the inmate population.

Justice policy over much of the past half-century, after all, was shaped by drug policy that specifically targeted poor communities, especially inner-city ones.

The failed War on Drugs gave rise to mandatory minimum sentences. Harsh required penalties, which block judges from considering each case’s nuances, directly coincided with the establishment of the American mass incarceration epidemic. The U.S. now imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other country — democratic, theocratic or authoritarian, reports The New York Times. That’s a shocking reality, one unbefitting of a supposedly “free” society that guarantees even the most heinous criminals fundamental rights.

For his part, Grassley — teamed with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois — has rightly recognized all this. He’s used his soapbox atop the powerful Judiciary Committee to hammer away at costly, unjust justice policy that’s destroyed entire communities and ruined thousands of lives. His bill has garnered sweeping bipartisan support because it represents a rare instance where quality social policy also makes good fiscal sense.

And yet, Grassley’s under pressure to walk away from his years-long quest, regardless of its logical fecundity. Some within his own party prefer unfounded brutality over sound, rational application of the law.

Hang in there, senator. You’re on the right side of this one.

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