Between 1980 and 2014, America's federal prison population exploded by 790 percent, even though crime rates fell for much of that same period. Nearly half of those locked behind federal prison bars are there for nonviolent drug offenses, and the duration of the average prison stay is up, too—by 36 percent since 1990.
"Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it," President Obama told the NAACP back in July of last year.
In short, the US prison system is broken, and it's been on the mind recently of the select few in a position to do something about it. But will they?
In October of last year, a group of US senators reached broad agreement on a plan to overhaul the criminal justice system, chiefly by rolling back harsh punishments for small-time, nonviolent offenders in the proposed Sentencing Reform Act.
In a letter on Wednesday, over 70 top cops and prosecutors—current and former police chiefs and commissioners, attorneys general and US attorneys—added their voices in support of the bill, urging Congress to take action. The letter is a powerful symbol, one its authors hope might lend an essential boost to reformers on Capitol Hill.
"This is a unique moment of rare bipartisan consensus on the urgent need for criminal justice reform," the letter reads. "As law enforcement leaders, we want to make clear where we stand: Not only is passing federal mandatory minimum reform necessary to reduce incarceration, it is also necessary to help law enforcement continue to keep crime at its historic lows across the country."
Watch current inmates react to President Obama's historic visit to the federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma.
The authors go on to suggest that reforming mandatory minimum sentences that require judges to dish out lengthy prison stays will help reduce crime, prison populations, and costs. "We know from our experience as leaders in law enforcement that we can reduce crime and punish offenders appropriately without relying on these excessive and arbitrary laws," they write.
Republican co-sponsors of the bill—US Senators John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, and Mike Lee—circulated the letter this morning to every member of Congress. The Senate is expected to hold a major hearing on criminal justice reform Wednesday.
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