The United States, the land of the free, is also the land of the imprisoned. No other nation locks up people like the United States. Its incarceration rate is far higher than China or Europe. The U.S. has only 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but it has 22 percent of the world’s prison population.
Yet for many years, Americans have not been bothered by by their nation’s bulging prison population and its cost in both human and financial terms. But that’s starting to change. Reducing the population of state and federal prisons is a goal on which Democrats and Republicans have come to agree. Democrats see it as a human rights issue. Republicans see it as a cost savings issue. Both are right.
President Obama is making sentencing reform and overall criminal justice reform a priority with the aim of truly correcting people without damaging them. Last week he gave a speech calling for the restoration of voting rights for those who’ve served their sentences and reforming harsh, mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses. He commuted the sentences of 46 such offenders and became the first president to visit a federal prison when he met with six inmates at El Reno Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma.
“I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it's normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It's not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things,” Obama said after touring the prison.
Republicans agree that the prison population of 2.2 million is too large and the costs are too high. House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential contender, support criminal justice reform.
North Carolina is a leader in reducing prison populations. A bipartisan effort pushed the Justice Reinvestment Act through the General Assembly in 2011 and the results have been impressive. The state prison population peaked at 41,000 in 2012 and has fallen to 37,500. The state has closed 10 of its smaller prisons, reducing the total to 56 and saving millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the state’s crime rate keeps dropping, there’s been a 14 percent decline in recidivism and a 50 percent drop in probation revocations.
David Guice, North Carolina’s corrections commissioner, was a Republican state legislator who helped pass the Justice Reinvestment Act. Now other states are asking him how to make the same changes.
President Obama and Republicans don’t agree on much, but they’re making progress together on this issue. That cooperation worked in North Carolina and it can work to make the United States a nation with fewer prisoners and more second chances.