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Too Big to Ignore: Criminal Justice Reform Can't Wait

Jennifer Bellamy,
Senior Legislative Counsel
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October 21, 2011

An enduring myth is that when an ostrich is afraid it will bury its head in the sand, thinking that if it cannot see, it cannot be seen. The truth is that an ostrich lowers its head when ready to fight. Ignoring a problem will not make it go away.

Criminal justice reform can’t wait. The problem of mass incarceration cannot be shelved or swept under the rug. The problem is now too big to hide, and hiding from fairness, efficiency and equity undermines our most fundamental values. Real leadership responds to problems; it does not ignore them. Today, there are over 2.3 million men and women in prisons throughout the United States. We incarcerate more of our population than any country in the world, and the increased incarceration of offenders with drug offenses represents the most significant source of growth. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, our government spends nearly $69 billion on our correctional system alone.

Recognizing the magnitude of this problem, on Tuesday, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) offered the National Criminal Justice Commission Act (NCJCA), as an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2012. If enacted, the NCJCA would create a bipartisan commission to study the United States’ broken criminal justice system and offer concrete recommendations to alleviate imbalances and injustices.

In response, the ACLU and our coalition partners launched an all-out offensive in order to ensure that Sen. Webb’s amendment was adopted – including mobilizing constituent support, blogging and reaching out directly to Congressional offices. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the Senate was 3 votes short of adopting the Webb amendment.

As Sen. Webb reminds us, “the reality is that 95 percent of those who are incarcerated will eventually make their way back to the streets. Some of them want to be career criminals. Most do not. For those who do not, in many ways the choice is ours as much as it is theirs as to whether they will become repeat offenders and societal burdens, or with proper assistance, transition into become producing citizens.”

The senator’s words are a reminder that we are a society, and that what affects one of us affects us all. The decision to turn one’s life around rests on the individual, but allowing individuals to make that choice is up to the society.

Yesterday’s vote is not the final step in the legislative process for the NCJCA. Stay tuned, because the ACLU remains firmly committed to passage of this important legislation and will continue working to advance the bill.

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