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Far-right senator demands vastly larger U.S. prison population

The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its inmates. One Senate Republican is committed to making this much worse.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015.
When making the pitch for criminal-justice reform last year, President Obama emphasized just how unique the issue is: partisans and ideologues may not agree on much in these divisive times, but there's broad agreement on overhauling the costly and ineffective status quo.
"This is a cause that's bringing people in both houses of Congress together," Obama told the NAACP. "It's created some unlikely bedfellows. You've got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You've got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You've got the NAACP and the Koch brothers.... That's good news."
There is, however, bad news. While there's broad support for sweeping reforms, far-right opponents haven't given up the fight to derail the entire initiative. In fact, as Politico reported, one right-wing senator argued yesterday that the United States doesn't lock up nearly enough of its population.

Sen. Tom Cotton on Thursday slammed his colleagues' efforts to pass sweeping criminal justice reforms, saying the United States is actually suffering from an "under-incarceration problem." Cotton, who has been an outspoken critic of the bill in Congress that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences, smacked down what he called "baseless" arguments that there are too many offenders locked up for relatively small crimes, that incarceration is too costly, or that "we should show more empathy toward those caught up in the criminal-justice system."

Speaking at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, the Arkansas Republican argued, in all seriousness, "Take a look at the facts. First, the claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact: for the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed. Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes."
"If anything," Cotton argued, "we have an under-incarceration problem."
The GOP senator went on to argue against letting Americans vote after they've served their time, and against the "Ban the Box" campaign. He also boasted that the bipartisan criminal-justice reform legislation, co-sponsored by members of the Democratic and Republican leadership, "is dead in this year's Congress."
The White House has noted that there are currently 2.2 million Americans behind bars. "We incarcerate people at a rate that is unequaled around the world," the president explained last fall. "We account for 5 percent of the world's population, 25 percent of its inmates."
This status quo is brutally expensive; it does lasting damage to countless families; and it undermines communities nationwide. Many policymakers -- in both parties -- hear numbers like these and believe it's time to change direction. There's nothing so unique about Americans that necessitates the United States locking up so many of our fellow citizens.
But then there's Tom Cotton, who sees these numbers as little more than a good start towards an even larger prison population.