Make Criminal Justice Reform a Key Issue in 2016

Hand in jail
Hand in jail

In this age where vitriol is worth more political capital than sound policy, it is the rare issue that enjoys bipartisan support. Criminal justice is one such issue. The state of our criminal justice system is simply so bad, the political climate for change so good, that it would be an epic desertion of our civic duties -- and of the pressure we as voters possess -- to let the 2016 election slip by without electoral promises of far-reaching reform.

Which is why criminal justice must be a key issue for 2016 voters.

As Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner recently wrote, the rational voter needs little persuasion: For the past 30 years, our federal prison population has quadrupled -- from a 1980 population of 500,000 inmates to more than 2.3 million incarcerated human beings today. Over that same period, prison spending has surged by almost 600 percent. We waste 25 percent of the Justice Department's budget on the nation's bloated penal machinery. Imagine where else that 25 percent could go -- to roads and railroads, to schools and healthcare, to the improvement rather than the degradation of human life.

But no. That 25 percent is instead flowing to the building and maintenance of glorified cages. And the wretched inhabitants of these pens are habitually imprisoned for nothing more than possessing the wrong sort of plant. Or for other victimless crimes, too often "wrongs" that are anything but what a criminal justice theorist would call malum in se, what the rest of us would call "bad."

Any 2016 contender that skims over criminal justice reform is a subpar candidate. Period. Because the topic is about more than criminality; it touches everything from the economy to the personal and family lives of millions of Americans. Reform can drag our country up, finally, to the standards that other industrialized nations have been meeting for decades now, in the process lessening the suffering of millions of our fellows.

In light of the first Republican primary debate, we must demand candidates outline their plans -- their detailed plans -- for criminal justice reform. At the very least, these blueprints should include the further decriminalization of petty drug offenses; hopefully (I won't hold my breath), these plans will include an end to the prison-industrial complex, that disgusting industry that profits from black pits of human pain, suffering, and misery.

Because we deserve a criminal justice system that reflects our country's values -- harshness, yes, but also forgiveness; rugged individuality, of course, but also a fighting chance for paroled inmates and for those who've served their time; and, finally, proportional punishments that don't steal decades of a young person's life for petty drug offenses.

Our country's ideals are better, far better, than the reality of our current criminal justice system. Let's drag our reality up to our ideals.

And let's lay the groundwork in 2016.