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Why criminal justice reform has a chance

The opportunity for real and important change is real, and the odds of progress are higher than at any time in recent memory.
President Barack Obama speaks during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City July 16, 2015. (Photo Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Barack Obama speaks during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City July 16, 2015.
Just a couple of weeks ago, President Obama put criminal-injustice issues up front and center in ways that were hard to miss.
On July 13, he commuted the sentences of dozens of non-violent drug offenders, some of whom were serving life sentences. On July 14, the president delivered a striking address at the NAACP's annual convention on the need for criminal-injustice reform. And on July 16, Obama became the first sitting president to personally visit a federal prison, even meeting with a group of non-violent convicts.
And in response, Republicans said ... very little. In an era in which Obama can barely wake up in the morning without GOP condemnations, Republicans -- on Capitol Hill, on the presidential campaign trail, in conservative media -- offered nothing in the way of presidential criticisms.
It wasn't long ago that any Democratic talk about criminal-injustice reforms would be met with immediate, knee-jerk talking points about "soft-on-crime" liberals who want to "coddle" criminals. Last month, however, as Rachel noted on the show, even House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he "absolutely" supports bipartisan reforms.
"We've got a lot of people in prison, frankly, that don't really in my view need to be there," the Republican leader told reporters, pleasantly surprising reform proponents. "It's expensive to house. Some of these people are in there for what I'll call flimsy reasons."
The New York Times reported yesterday that the winds of change have shifted in a way that makes real progress possible for the first time in at least a generation.

...Congress seems poised to revise four decades of federal policy that greatly expanded the number of Americans -- to roughly 750 per 100,000 -- now incarcerated, by far the highest of any Western nation. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has long resisted changes to federal sentencing laws, said he expected to have a bipartisan bill ready before the August recess.

The details of Grassley's bill are not yet available, but the fact that the effort is moving forward at all is an amazing development.
In 2015, the two major parties agree on practically nothing, but criminal-injustice reforms, of all things, have just the right combination of proponents to break through.
"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."
It is, indeed. For the left, the current system is destroying communities, hurting families, and ending opportunities for Americans who deserve a chance to succeed. For the right, the status quo is an expensive, inefficient mess.
So, what are lawmakers prepared to actually do? From the Times' report:

As senators work to meld several proposals into one bill, one important change would be to expand the so-called safety-valve provisions that give judges discretion to sentence low-level drug offenders to less time in prison than the required mandatory minimum term if they meet certain requirements. Another would allow lower-risk prisoners to participate in recidivism programs to earn up to a 25 percent reduction of their sentence. Lawmakers also would like to create more alternatives for low-level drug offenders. Nearly half of all current federal prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes.

Some skepticism is understandable -- there's been sporadic chatter about reforms before, which hasn't amounted to much of anything. As the process just starts to get underway in earnest, there are all kinds of choke-points ahead, which may yet derail the opportunity.
But the opportunity is nevertheless real, and the odds of progress are higher than at any time in recent memory.