Bim (AKA Roy Forbes) once said if you did not believe in miracles you might be taking bad advice. I always feared this applied to me. No more. A Miracle just occurred and very near to Christmas at that, but there has not been a lot of talk about it in the media.
Just when it seemed impossible, the Democrats and Republicans in the US, who normally can’t agree on what day it is, have joined together with President Donald Trump in an amazing agreement for criminal justice reform. They have agreed to eliminate many of the most horrific mandatory minimum sentences that were intended to tie tied the hands of liberal judges in the US, but which led to many outrageous criminal sentences. In a remarkable bill that enjoyed widespread non-partisan support and was lauded by President Trump as his first non-partisan triumph, truly significant criminal justice reform was actually achieved.
Currently the US has the highest rates of incarceration in the entire world. At this time more than 2 million Americans are behind bars, with African Americans disproportionately represented, of course.
I was shocked to see Mark Holden Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the Koch Industries, famous for being ultra rich conservatives, together with Van Jones, former staffer for Obama, who both backed the bill. Jones called it a “Christmas miracle–you have to believe it to see it.” Holden said his people believe in fundamental liberties, equal justice, and second chances. He admitted that for the last 30 or 40 years the criminal justice system has been a poverty trap and has not made Americans safer. A lot of money and human potential has been wasted on it. In the past decade or so Americans have learned from the success of states like Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Delaware and others, that you can keep people safe and make sure criminals are being rehabilitated while they are in prison and when they come out they are less violent, less trouble, more productive, and you save a lot of money. What conservative would not like that?
In the last few years, a conservative state like Texas has closed down 8 prisons and saved more than 8 billion dollars and now has crime rates that have not been that low since the 1950s! Understandably, this has many conservatives and liberals in the US excited. Jones says the left and right have come together for a principled reason. Conservatives who believe in limited government, or who are Christians who believe in the importance of human dignity and second chances, and libertarians who hate to see government chew up rights, are all offended by the mass incarceration in the US. People on the left who are concerned about social justice, racism, and such issues are also offended by the mass incarceration. Holden admitted, “The war on drugs has been a massive failure. We need to look at the criminal elements within that and treat them as crimes, and treat them proportionately for what they do, but by and large a lot of other people in the system are really a public health issue, a poverty issue, a substance abuse issue, mental health issue, or maybe they just need a chance, because they come from a place where they don’t have good schools, good programs, or mentoring. Lets not just lock them up. We’re way too anxious and alarmist around criminal justice issues just to lock people up…There are people who need to be in prison, but most don’t.”
People around the world are disturbed by what is happening in the US. A big part of what has made politicians reluctant to engage this issue has been fear. After all, giving benefits to prisoners who often don’t have the right to vote as convicted felons and don’t make political campaign contributions is difficult for politicians to support, since some of these prisoners will re-offend and hurt someone. Inevitably this will lead to a public outcry and may end the political career of the politician who helped make this happen. Fear drives the politicians. They must be persuaded to overcome fear and to support measures like the current American legislation. They must see that the current system is madness.
Some political leaders have come to understand that having people in prison who don’t’ really belong there come out with deep resentment. As Jones said, “Prison makes them bitter not better,” and that is not good for society.
As Criminal justice advocate Brian Stevenson said, “we have a two-tiered system—the rich and guilty get a better deal than the poor and innocent.” We need a criminal justice system that serves all of us. We should not have a system where justice depends on the amount of money the charged person possesses. As Holden said, “If you are middle class or working class or one of the least among us living in desperate circumstances you cannot fight the federal or state government for it becomes a situation that once you’re in the system and don’t have resources you are pretty much branded for life with the scarlet letter “F” (for felon). That is completely unfair.” And whether you’re on the left or the right you should be able to see that.
We should not think this issue is limited to the US. It is most dramatically demonstrated there, but we have it in Canada too. We too have obscene sentences imposed on vulnerable people unable to defend themselves against the powerful state and its zealous officials, all because of mandatory minimum sentences. We have to resist political leaders who try to convince of the need for mandatory minimum sentences by frightening the voters.
Canada not that long ago under the leadership of our local MP who was also the Minster of Justice, Vic Toews, brought into Canada a large number of mandatory minimum sentences all in the name of getting “tough on crime.” He did this just when the legislators he was imitating in the US were starting to realize these minimum sentences ushered in horrible injustices and did little to reduce crimes. Even though these laws were good examples of “lose/lose,” that did not stop our local MP, Ted Falk, from crying with mock horror when Trudeau made a modest incursion towards reducing mandatory minimum sentences, again trying to show Conservatives were “tough on crime” while liberals were “soft on crime.” We have to remember, fear is seldom a sound basis for making important policy decisions.
Miracles can happen.