Republican Senator Rand Paul has joined forces with Democratic Senator Cory Booker in pushing for reform of the way that the U.S. criminal justice system treats non-violent youthful offenders. It is encouraging in these twisted times of toxic political acrimony to actually see signs of forward thinking senators rise above the trench warfare to advocate for a higher cause. It is a cause that represents the best interests of our shared society in the long-term rather than just the capsule of an election cycle. The duo are working on getting legislation enacted that would remove the lifelong stigma from individuals who make mistakes early in their lives by giving them a chance to redeem themselves. It is neither wise nor compassionate to allow a system to condemn those who have gone awry early in life - in a non-violent manner - to decades of punishment. These youths face a lifetime of being reduced to second class citizens or even worse. Once ensnared, many are then molded into violent offenders through their immersion in a skewed system of criminal injustice where they are then exposed to real bad guys during their formative years.
The REDEEM Act, which stands for"Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment" would prevent errant young people from being ruined for life by getting sucked into the far too often indiscriminate conviction and imprisonment mill of the bureaucratic monstrosity that is the American criminal justice system. According to a story in the online version of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, which is that state that Booker hails from:
Cory Booker and Rand Paul serve very different constituencies, and their political leanings are equally diverse. But the two U.S. senators agree that the federal government’s approach to non-violent offenders has to change.
Booker, a liberal Democrat from New Jersey, and Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Kentucky, plan to announce today their intention to sponsor legislation, which they call the "REDEEM Act", to change the government’s focus from punishing low-level drug offenders to helping them re-enter society.
"I will work with anyone, from any party, to make a difference for the people of New Jersey and this bipartisan legislation does just that," Booker said in a statement. "The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways."
The bill would:
• Repeal the ban on federal welfare benefits for those convicted of drug violations.
• Provide states with incentives to raise the age of criminal responsibility when suspects are automatically tried as adults to 18. Under the bill, states that set it at 18 would get an advantage in applying for Community Oriented Policing Services grants.
• Automatically expunge criminal records for children under 15 who have been convicted of non-violent crimes, and seal the records of those 15 to 17, meaning offenders could lawfully claim they do not exist.
• Create the "first broad-based federal path" for adults to petition to seal criminal records, and allow employers who request FBI background checks of applicants to see only "relevant and accurate information."
• Ban solitary confinement of juvenile inmates except "in the most extreme circumstances."
The national media generated political circus will likely spin the joint-effort as nothing more than another cynical self-promotion to smear Paul and Booker as being disingenuous. The truth is that the REDEEM Act is a bill in line with the highest of American values. Redemption and inclusion as well as the ability to contribute economically are virtues that should be embraced as well as offering a helping hand up rather than kicking somebody when they are down. That may be tough for some to wrap their minds around in this dog eat dog, screw your buddy over society but that is the way that things used to be back when we were a kinder, gentler and more humble nation.
The REDEEM Act is not getting much attention in this election year, it doesn't exactly offer up the shovels of bloody red meat that regularly is whipped out to fire up the bases of the parties so it is avoided while sensationalism trumps rational debate. It also faces fierce opposition by the prison industrial complex lobby. One of America's dirty little secrets is that there is a boatload of money to be made off of throwing people into jail and our for profit prison system, one which blows away Stalin's gulags is as shameful as it is lucrative. The trend towards privatizing prisons is growing and the prison lobby is flush with money.
Leading the pack of prison profiteers is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) of which a "co-founder" was quoted in a Forbes online story as saying: ”the company was founded on the principle that you could sell prisons ‘just like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.’” The REDEEM Act would deprive this monstrous incarceration machine of millions of young bodies, each of which would be a revenue stream for decades. Paul and Booker will be subjected to a barrage of negative ad campaigns and their opponents will be showered with campaign contributions to help derail REDEEM. That is just the way that the system works when government officials put themselves up for sale to the highest bidders and this is why the efforts of Rand Paul and Cory Booker are as commendable as they are rare for U.S. politicians.