Cal Thomas: Embracing prison reform

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, August 14th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Next up, Cal Thomas on thinking about prison reform from a fresh perspective.

CAL THOMAS, COMMENTATOR: Prison reform has historically been an issue embraced by Democrats, not Republicans. But, perhaps, like so many other things in the Trump administration, this, too, is about to change.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 37.8 percent of prison inmates in the U.S. are black, 58.3 percent white, 2.3 percent Native American and 1.6 percent Asian. Yet, blacks are arrested more, charged more, sentenced more harshly, and confined to prison longer, even for minor infractions.

In Georgia, according to Department of Corrections and U.S. Census Bureau data, about two-thirds of prisoners are African-American, even though they make up only about one-third of the state’s population.

During a meeting last week with President Trump, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia touted the progress his state has made reducing the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prisons. The number of black men incarcerated in Georgia dropped 30 percent in the last seven years, while the number of black female inmates dropped 38 percent.

Deal highlighted re-entry into society as a vital part of lowering the recidivism rate. Common among those in prison was a lack of education. Seventy percent, he said, had not graduated from high school. So Georgia stepped up its GED and job training programs, giving former inmates a reason to stay out of trouble after release.

A disparity in sentencing, lack of competent legal representation for poor and minority defendants, overcrowding — and the fact that prisons aren’t known primarily for reforming too many inmates — all contribute to a system that has placed 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation. These include a sizeable number of non-dangerous, nonviolent offenders who would be better off outside prisons and in programs designed to change their life direction, even paying back those from whom they have stolen or otherwise harmed. It’s called restitution.

Politically, this is an issue that will resonate well in minority communities for obvious reasons, but more than politics should be involved. Reforming our criminal justice system, which is often more criminal than just, is the moral and right thing to do.

In the coming weeks, the Senate is expected to consider a modified version of a House bill that would reduce the current mandatory life sentence for some drug offenses to 25 years. The Senate bill would also prohibit doubling mandatory sentences for some drug and gun crimes, and it would give judges more sentencing discretion. It also would make retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that narrowed the discrepancy in sentencing guidelines for crack versus powdered cocaine, another issue that has disproportionately affected the black community.

Saving money while instituting programs that work, giving people hope and another chance at a better future are Republican themes. Democrats should join them. If they do, they can share the credit for things that succeed in transforming troubled lives.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Cal Thomas.

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