OUR OPINION: Encouraging bipartisanship on prison reform

Given the Democrats and Republicans' mutual loathing in Washington, how many results do suppose would show up in a Google search of "bipartisan prison reform"?...

Our Opinion
Our Opinion

Given the Democrats and Republicans' mutual loathing in Washington, how many results do suppose would show up in a Google search of "bipartisan prison reform"?

Ten, maybe? Eleven?

Try 131,000, with a big fraction of them stemming from just the past few years. For in fact, in a Congress in which partisan gridlock has become a new norm, the unlikely issue of prison reform is generating surprising agreement.

That's great news - especially for Minnesota, where lawmakers are debating whether to let felons vote, as the columns on today's ThreeSixty page show.

Crime and punishment policies work best if they're broadly supported. Nationally, circumstances are lining up in ways that encourage bipartisan support of prison and sentencing reform; and if the same trends prompt Minnesota Republicans and Democrats to come to terms on letting felons vote once the ex-cons have completed their time behind bars, good.


The bipartisan push nationwide has been widely noticed and commented upon.

"On the Democratic side, a drop in crime rates and a renewed focus on the party's younger and racially diverse base has given space for candidates like Hillary Clinton to embrace calls for change from African-American and civil rights groups without fear of political backlash," reported last week.

"On the Republican side, different factions of the party have arrived at reform from different angles." One angle stems from the religious right, "which grew more interested in reform through prison ministries, where pastors saw firsthand the devastating impact incarceration had on families," the story notes.

Another push comes from fiscal conservatives - including Gov Rick Perry in Texas, where the high rate of incarceration threatened to empty the state treasury a few years ago. Texas responded with dramatic sentencing reforms, making much better use of less-expensive options such as halfway houses and home monitoring and saving a bundle in the process.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also pushed the movement along. In 2013, Paul spoke at Howard University - a historically black university in Washington - in support of sentencing reform. And Paul's reputation is such that when he spoke, conservatives listened.

The net results are proposals such as the federal Smarter Sentencing Act. It would give judges more discretion in sentencing, and it has the backing of Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., among other senators, as well as former Attorney General Eric Holder.

In Minnesota, a "Restore the Vote" bill also drew early bipartisan support. The session ends soon, though, and the bill's short-term fate is in doubt.

But the long-term outlook is brighter, thanks to the growing national accord. Prison reform is an extremely challenging issue. And if Democrats and Republicans are getting to "Yes" on it more often, then for American governance, that's a very encouraging sign.


- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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