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Booker, Paul step up on sentencing reforms

For all the nation's deep partisan divides, it's not unrealistic to think sentencing reform can be a bipartisan issue.
A view of barbed wire at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
A view of barbed wire at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
For all the nation's deep partisan divides, it's not unrealistic to think sentencing reform can be a bipartisan issue.
About a year ago, for example, Attorney General Eric Holder made a compelling case that existing sentencing laws cost too much, ravage families and communities unnecessarily, and have no practical law-enforcement rationale. The response from the right was uncharacteristically supportive.
The issue has generated less attention on Capitol Hill, though as of yesterday, that's starting to change. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have a good idea.

The REDEEM Act proposal would encourage states to raise the age of criminal responsibly to 18 years of age; expunge or seal the records of juveniles who commit non-violent crimes before they turn 15; place limits on the solitary confinement of most juveniles; and establish a system to allow eligible nonviolent criminals to petition a court to ask that their criminal records be sealed. Sealing the records would keep them out of FBI background checks requested by employers and likely make it easier for those former offenders to secure a job. Currently 10 states set the age at which someone can be tried in adult criminal court below 18, a move that the senators said in their statement "sends countless kids into the unforgiving adult criminal system." In hopes of reversing the trend, Booker and Paul propose giving states that change the minimum age preference when applying for federal community police grants. The same preference would be given to states that allow nonviolent offenders to petition to have their criminal records sealed. Once the records are sealed, an offender could lawfully claim that their records don't exist.

To be sure, the odds of this bill becoming law in 2014 are practically non-existent. Congress has some must-pass bills to tackle, and the House has some manufactured "scandals" to play with before the elections, but it's unrealistic to think the REDEEM Act will reach the floor in either chamber before the end of the year.
But reforms like these generally take time. Unveiling the bill this year and generating some conversation helps lay the groundwork for possible action next year.
What's more, note that there are related bills that may yet get some attention, reinforcing the impression that this is an area ripe for progress.
The New York Times editorial board noted a couple of weeks ago:

Criminal justice reform is one of the rare issues on which there has been bipartisan support in Congress and significant progress toward a legislative solution. Until recently, anyway. Two bills, each with Republican and Democratic sponsors, were expected to come up for a vote by this summer -- one that would reduce lengthy sentences for many low-level drug offenders and another that would give low-risk inmates credit toward early release if they participate in job-training and drug treatment programs. But progress on both bills has stalled, and congressional leaders who were once confident about their chances this year are now looking toward 2015, at the earliest.

The paralysis on Capitol Hill is obviously frustrating, but the fact that these bills even exist is evidence of a changing policy landscape.
As we've discussed before, it really wasn't that long ago that the discussion over sentencing reforms was stagnant and regressive. The conservative line on these issues lacked all reason and nuance -- the right demanded more prisons, more prisoners, harsher sentences, an aggressive "war on drugs," and no questions. To disagree was to invite the "soft on crime" condemnation. As the nation's prison population soared to unprecedented levels, the right simply responded, "Good."
Democrats were generally afraid to touch the issue. Proposed changes were met with silence, if not knee-jerk opposition.
It's a new day and it's long overdue.