CNN: Seize the moment to reform our prison system


(CNN) -- With Republican majorities coming in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, many people in Washington believe nothing will get done. We'd like to nominate an exception to that expectation: Criminal justice reform.

Newt has talked about the need for "confidence-building measures" between the President and Republicans in Congress. The idea is that we should work on easier things first, so that we can work on harder things next.

Transforming our nation's failed prison system looks like it could be easier now than anyone expected. Leaders in both parties agree on the need and direction for reform.

They recognize that locking up millions of people for very long periods of time at ballooning costs is not a wise response to nonviolent crime. Warehousing nonviolent offenders for years behind bars has been an economic, moral and human catastrophe.

The United States has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of its incarcerated population. During the past four decades, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. has more than quadrupled, costing us more than $80 billion a year. There are now roughly 2.3 million people in prison or in jail, which is nearly one in every 100 Americans.

Today in a Florida prison, a 19-year-old man is serving a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for drug possession. His incarceration will cost taxpayers $60,000 a year. He will receive no job training, no education and no drug treatment. He will leave prison beaten down. He'll carry the stigma and the barriers that come with being a felon, making it difficult for him to find a job and more likely that he will end up back in prison.

As a corrections system, this makes no sense. We must rethink our approach from the ground up. And for federal crimes, we can start by building on bipartisan reforms that are spreading across the country at the state level.

In the true spirit of federalism, states have led the way in passing reforms that protect public safety, more effectively punish and correct nonviolent offenders, save taxpayers money and ensure hardened and violent criminals remain behind bars.

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