It was so…normal. Republicans and Democrats voting together to pass a bill that made important, sensible changes in the federal criminal justice system, changes that had been studies and negotiated over years. The president cheered them on, urging the House to hurry up and vote on the bill so he could sign it. At this writing, the House vote is pending.
All Democratic senators and all but twelve Republicans (all right-wingers) supported the bill. The president’s announcement that he supported it had broken a logjam in the Senate, pushing the majority leader to put it to a vote.
Since the peak of the War on Crime in the late twentieth century, a number of serious problems and issues had arisen. It was widely noted that the incarcerated population was heavily skewed toward racial minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos. This was partly attributable to a disparity in mandatory sentencing for different types of drug crimes. For example, crack cocaine possession was punished far more severely than powder cocaine possession; the latter more characteristic of the while middle class, the former more widespread among African American poor.
The sheer cost of all those prison cells, care, feeding, guarding, came to be seen as a prime place to cut federal expenditures. In days of yore, all that was seen as a sign of how tough on crime we were.
Mandatory sentencing itself was widely criticized for taking away a judge’s ability to tailor sentencing to particular circumstances, thus putting many people in jail who shouldn’t have been there.
The dominant motive behind the War on Crime was punishment, rather than rehabilitation, which meant that fewer resources were devoted, for example, to job training. Indeed, the bias for punishment seemed to lead to making the prison experience as unpleasant and even dangerous as possible.
All this and more led to a ballooning of the American prison population: the rate of incarceration relative to population is higher for the United States than any other country, and only China (with a much larger population, has more prisoners in absolute numbers.
That finally got the attention of many conservatives—and of the president himself. The sheer cost of all those prison cells, care, feeding, guarding, came to be seen as a prime place to cut federal expenditures. In days of yore, all that was seen as a sign of how tough on crime we were.
This bill addresses all that and more, and does it in a way that brought a strong majority of Republicans on board along with all Democratic Senators. It falls well short of reforms that many Democrats advocate, but hey, that’s the legislative process that used to be so familiar: you win some, you lose some, you compromise, you pass laws.
For the most part, we haven’t had it this way since at least the election of Obama, if not going all the way back to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in the 1990s. Partisanship and polarization have been the norm. Republicans were largely successful in denying Obama significant legislative accomplishments after they took control of the House in 2010. And of course since 2016, with Republicans in total control of Congress and the presidency, and the aggressively partisan Donald Trump in the White House, what legislation has passed has been strongly partisan, like the huge tax cut bill that largely benefited the rich and the corporations.
Indeed, other than the tax cut, Trump doesn’t have much in the way of legislative achievements, because of his own ineffective and inconsistent leadership, the disunity of the Republican ranks in both House and Senate, and a general unwillingness to work with the Democrats to get bills passed.
It’s too soon to say whether this bipartisan success on criminal justice reform is just a flash in the pan, or a harbinger of the return of pragmatic, bipartisan legislation. Indeed, there’s still time at this writing for Trump or House Republicans to blow it up.
But if it holds, it’s cause for at least a modest celebration, anyway, for the return of governing as a rational enterprise. Long time, no see!