Criminal Justice Reform Could Face Delays

As 2015 draws to a close, a bipartisan initiative to bring broad reforms to the American criminal justice system could face significant delays or indefinite stalling, according to recent articles in the Talking Points Memo and the New York Times. The primary adversary, it would seem, is the clock.

Criminal justice reform is one of those rare issues that carries wide bipartisan support, as prison overpopulation continues to take a huge toll on the economy. With approximately 2.4 million people behind bars, the United States currently imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation on earth by a wide margin. This phenomenon has been fueled in part by mandatory minimum sentencing that went into effect in the late 1970s and early 1980s; since that time, incarceration rates in America have risen by 400 percent. Reform measures currently under consideration would revisit many of the mandatory minimum sentences, give more leniency to non-violent or first-time offenders (including early release), and give judges more latitude when considering sentencing for those convicted of non-violent crimes.

jail prison cell and bars

The issue has received broad support from political groups and organizations that are usually diametrically opposed to each other, including the liberal A.C.L.U. and the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, and has even turned the White House and the Koch Brothers into strange bedfellows, so to speak. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan have agreed to introduce criminal reform legislation bills in their respective houses of Congress.

So with all this support, why is criminal justice reform in danger of being put on the back burner? Simply put, it’s a matter of timing—a combination of a clogged congressional calendar and an upcoming election season. Congress is currently bogged down with a number of issues to be addressed before the end of 2015 (including tax and funding related bills). Meanwhile, as election season looms, some Republicans who have expressed support for reform legislation are coming under increased pressure to side with more conservative voices who have voiced concerns about releasing prisoners back to the streets—not the least of whom are G.O.P. Presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

The upshot is if reform legislation is not passed by the beginning of 2016, many believe it may be put on the back burner for an indefinite length of time. With only two weeks left in 2015, it is highly unlikely to be addressed before January. While the push for criminal justice reform is far from over, time has inadvertently become a commodity. It will be interesting to see whether Congress can be pressured to act on these initiatives before the upcoming political season knocks them out of the spotlight for awhile.