What Conservatives Are Doing About Criminal Justice Reform(No, Really!)

rand paul national urban league  2014 National Urban League Conference

Senator Rand Paul/YouTube

Current trends show that 1 in 3 Black males can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, versus 1 in 17 white males. Our prisons are a clear indicator that America is at a crossroad. Black America has made progress from the days of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Yet, we are still faced with injustices and inequalities, some because of the color of our skin. America’s criminal justice system is in dire need of reform, and Conservatives are not turning a deaf ear to this fact.

No, you didn’t read that wrong.

In May of this year, the House of Representatives passed the SAVE ACT by a 392-19 vote. Surprisingly, 22 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the Act, which included three new mandatory minimum sentencing penalties. Historically, the Congressional Black Caucus has opposed this type of legislation.  Republican Congressman Tom Massie voted in opposition of this bill. While his congressional district only has a 2.3% Black population, he knew the importance of his vote. He voted for justice.

I know Conservatives are probably not the first people to come to mind when you think about criminal justice reform. However, I truly believe that my party’s platform supports all, especially Black America. The racial disparities we face cannot be left up to one group of people to solve. If that were the case, the issues would be solved by now.

Since the advent of mandatory minimums in the 1980s, Black Americans have increasingly been incarcerated for longer and harsher sentences. Some see mandatory minimums as a punitive manner and some see it from a sentencing perspective. However, that does not change the fact that 1 in every 100 Americans is living behind bars. The outrage is here! While mandatory minimums may have been a well-intentioned attempt to reduce recidivism, the results tell us a different story.

Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has been a huge advocate for mandatory minimum reform. He supports legislation to expand the “safety valve,” which prevents those who committed non-violent crimes and have little criminal history from being sentenced based on sentencing guidelines. This is common sense. Americans who commit non-violent crimes should pay a price that is equivalent to the crime committed, not necessarily a life in prison.

In 1994, President Clinton championed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (often referred to as “the Crime Bill.”) The Act infused $9.7 billion dollars to states for construction and operation of prisons. Was this the best use of taxpayer dollars? No. The solution to crime is not to build more prisons. The solution to crime is to identify the root causes.  Frankly, there should have been more monies tied to alternative programs and community organizations that focused on the root causes. The Act failed us. President Clinton’s failure to act for justice and equality failed the Black community. Now, twenty years later, Blacks continue to have the highest incarceration rates for non-violent drug crimes.

Legislation that reduces the inequalities and racial disparities in prison sentences for non-violent crimes will bring us closer to the belief that America is the place for new beginnings. America is supposed to be the place for second chances. The solution to reform cannot be left to one political party. Conservatives are stepping up, and making good on their word through legislation and their voting record.

In an op-ed piece for Time in the wake of the death of Mike Brown and the ensuing protests in Ferguson, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) advocated for criminal justice reform and demilitarization of the police. Paul wrote, “Anyone who thinks race does not skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.” Given how three-fourths of all individuals imprisoned for non-violent offenses are non-white Americans, reform is well overdue. It is a travesty that Blacks and Hispanics receive longer and harsher sentences than whites.  To top it off, there is an exorbitant burden on taxpayers to support prisons- about $83 billion annually.  We live in America, the land of the free. Do these racial disparities represent us? Are we more invested in our prison systems than education, job training and entrepreneurship?

It is important now more than ever that the electorate hold their legislators accountable for criminal justice reform. Do your research. Ask every candidate where he or she stands on criminal justice reform. Google and find out where they stood in the past. Require them to work for your vote. Be open to the solution coming from someone on the other side of the political aisle, like Massie, Lee, and Paul. It is the justice and equality that should matter most to us.

In the words of the Congressman Charles Rangel, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, “We as the Black members of Congress have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but we do have permanent interests.”




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