Why lawmakers, candidates seek to roll back mandatory prison sentences

After years of getting 'tough on crime,' Republican and Democratic lawmakers want to reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders. Why now?

Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS/File
Marvin Caldwell, 63, who said he was imprisoned for 20 years under the three strikes law for possession and sale of methamphetamine, looks out of his cell at San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, California, in this June 8, 2012, file photo.

A new plan introduced Thursday by a bipartisan group of US senators would stop or reduce mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent offenders that have resulted in the imprisonment of millions of Americans, at great cost.

If passed, the law could be retroactively applied, paving the way for 6,500 prisoners to appeal their sentences, the New York Times reports.

"We're bringing real reform to our prisons, that give low-risk inmates a chance to return to society earlier, with better prospects," Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa said while unveiling the bill. "Most of all, this is a bill that we can be proud of."

Suddenly, it seems, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working to reduce the current prison population, which has ballooned since the 1980s. After decades in which Democrats and Republicans competed to burnish their tough-on-crime credentials, the conversation has shifted to the heavy social and financial costs of mass incarceration. 

Though Americans make up five percent of the world's population, the US is home to 25 percent of its prisoners, The Atlantic reports.

In July, President Obama made history by becoming the first sitting president to visit a US prison to witness its conditions. Now, both Democratic and Republican candidates have been carving out their own positions on prison reform.

“There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are far more likely to be stopped by the police and charged with crimes and given longer prison terms than their white counterparts,” Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a recent speech. “There is something wrong when trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve breaks down … We must urgently begin to rebuild bonds of trust and respect among American between police and citizens.”

However, Ms. Clinton has not yet outlined her plan for rebuilding those bonds of trust. She has also recently come under fire when it was revealed that several contributors to her campaign are affiliated with the private prison system, according to The Intercept.

On the campaign trail, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont introduced a comprehensive bill titled the “Justice is Not For Sale Act,” which would entirely ban the private prison system. However, his presidential campaign has repeatedly been harshly criticized by members of the grassroots Black Lives Matter activist group for failing to be more accountable on his positions. 

On the Republican side, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has decried the structure which permits mandatory minimums on sentencing, saying, “Harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have contributed to prison overpopulation and are both unfair and ineffective.” Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is also criticizing mandatory minimums, commenting, “The War on Drugs is principally responsible for the wide gap in confidence between minorities and the police.”

After decades of harsh sentencing reinforced by tough-on-crime legislation, prison reform may finally take center stage in 2016.

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