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Criminal justice reforms should take center stage at Democratic debate

Our remarkably harsh criminal justice system has an impact on all Americans -- not just the 1 in 3 with a criminal record. It's time to make a change.
A prison cell block is seen following a tour by President Barack Obama at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., July 16, 2015.
A prison cell block is seen following a tour by President Barack Obama at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., July 16, 2015.

For three hours last month, the country tuned into CNN to watch the top Republican presidential hopefuls debate. The candidates discussed Russia, Syria and ISIS. They argued over shutting down the government and went back and forth over what to do about undocumented immigrants. And then, with about a half hour left in the debate, the candidates finally turned to one of the most pressing issues of our time: criminal justice reform.

While it was encouraging to hear some substantive discussion on the need to reform our criminal justice system -- with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina voicing support for treating drug addicts rather than locking them behind bars -- we need to keep these issues in the spotlight. As the Democrats get ready to debate in Las Vegas, reforms must be a central part of the discussion -- it’s simply too pressing of an issue to ignore.

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Our criminal justice system impacts all Americans -- not just the 1 in 3 with a criminal record. Our jails and prisons are over capacity with 2.3 million individuals incarcerated and 70 million Americans finding it harder to obtain employment and maintain access to housing due to their record. But unjust bias in the system also leads to racial disparities in sentencing and incarceration rates: Between 2007 and 2009, black men received federal sentences that were 14% longer than those for white men with similar arrest offenses. Blacks and Latinos make up 56% of those incarcerated, yet only 30% of the U.S. population. All the while the United States is spending $80 billion a year on an ineffective, unfair system. We need to make changes.

These startling numbers make it easy to understand why Hillary Clinton’s first policy speech after declaring her presidential run wasn’t about foreign policy or the future of our education system -- it was about criminal justice reform.

Clinton used her speech at Columbia University to call for an end to the “era of mass incarceration,” and tackled the issue from an economic angle, noting, “the price of incarcerating a single person is often more than $30,000 per year—and up to $60,000 in some states. That’s the salary of a teacher or police officer.” The former secretary of state drew attention to the large percentage of the incarcerated population that are behind bars for non-violent, often minor drug crimes that tear families apart. And she pushed for more treatment over incarceration when it comes to mental health issues and drug addiction.

Clinton isn’t alone. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has offered what he called a racial justice platform that seeks to reduce “mandatory minimums that punish people of color unfairly” and looks to break down barriers to stop employers from discriminating against applicants with a criminal history, as well as introducing his own criminal justice reform bill in the Senate. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley released a nine-page plan to reform our prisons and sentencing and overhaul our approach to treating mental health and drug addiction. Beyond Paul and Fiorina on the Republican side, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has implemented a "ban the box" policy for his administration, which removes the requirement that people with records disclose their criminal records when applying for government jobs.

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While many may view these moves as good politics, they’re also good policies -- and these types of commonsense solutions deserve serious consideration. That’s why the U.S. Justice Action Network, the largest advocacy group bringing together leading conservative and progressive groups to further justice reforms, is urging presidential candidates from both parties to offer real solutions to reduce our prison population and its associated costs. With the power of groups like FreedomWorks, the ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the U.S Justice Action Network will be in Nevada on Tuesday urging the Democratic contenders to use the national spotlight of the debate stage to address criminal justice reform, just as we did at the first Republican debate in Cleveland.

What would our justice system look like if some of these proposed reforms were put in place? We can look to states that have already begun implementing them. Texas, for instance, saw its prison population more than triple from 1990 to 2010 and faced over $500 million in immediate prison construction costs, so lawmakers decided to use rehabilitation and treatment programs to reduce their prison population. Instead of approving a half a billion dollars for new prisons, legislators appropriated half of that to implement programs that would reduce recidivism. These series of reforms reversed the trend of Texas’ growing prison population, and saved taxpayers billions -- all while the state’s crime rate dropped. South Carolina introduced reforms in 2010 that reduced sentences for some non-violent crimes. According to the Post and Courier, “That bill was so effective that it has reduced the prison population in the state by more than 10 percent overall and slashed the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders in the years since its passage.”

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While many of those running for the White House have discussed similar reforms, which could have a significant impact nationally, others have yet to offer concrete solutions. It’s time for all the candidates, Republicans and Democrats, to show real leadership and put forward plans to fix our broken criminal justice system. These debates give the country a chance to hear what candidates have to offer -- and we’ll be watching to see if they seize this opportunity.

Wade Henderson is President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Holly Harris is Executive Director of the U.S. Justice Action Network.