GOP Contenders Should Run on Ending Mass Incarceration

Agreement on big issues in Congress seems like a rarity, but there is growing support to address the crisis of mass incarceration from Republicans and Democrats alike. Even the GOP presidential contenders agree that the “war on drugs” has failed.

The costs of the federal corrections system are growing, and several pieces of legislation have been introduced to reform outdated sentencing laws and to bring state-proven policies that have reduced recidivism to federal prisons. In states such as Texas and Georgia, these policies have saved taxpayers money, while making communities safer.

During the latest CNN debate, moderator Jake Tapper asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) about drug policy, and the libertarian-leaning Republican took the opportunity to talk about the problems with current policies, which have caused the federal prison population to explode by nearly 800 percent since 1980.

“I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual, and I think that America has to take a different attitude. I would like to see more rehabilitation and less incarceration. I’m a fan of the drug courts, which try to direct you back towards work and less time in jail,” said Paul. “And I think the federal government has gone too far, I think that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome, and really has been something that has really damaged our inner cities.
“Not only do the drugs damage them, we damage them again by incarcerating them and then preventing them from getting employment over time,” he added.

Indeed, the war on drugs has adversely affected poor and minority communities in inner cities. Last year, the National Research Council of the National Academies released a study, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, which discussed this troubling issue.

“The rise in incarceration rates marked a massive expansion of the role of the justice system in the nation’s poorest communities. Many of those entering prison come from and will return to these communities. When they return, their lives often continue to be characterized by violence, joblessness, substance abuse, family breakdown, and neighborhood disadvantage,” the researchers noted. “It is difficult to draw strong causal inferences from the research, but there is little question that incarceration has become another strand in the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities.”

Paul was not the only candidate on stage who grasped the issues facing the federal corrections system. Though he is aggressive in his opposition to changes to federal drug laws, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expressed support for rehabilitation over incarceration and acknowledged, “[T]he war on drugs has been a failure.”

Similarly, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiornia, whose stepdaughter suffered from drug addiction before passing away in 2009, also weighed in. “We do need criminal justice reform. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug related,” she explained. “It’s clearly not working.”