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When will criminal justice reform happen?

Throughout the world, the United States is widely regarded as being a free society in which democracy and freedom of speech reign. Yet, despite the many freedoms we as Americans enjoy, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. In fact, according to the sentencing project, as of 2014, there were more than 1.5 million people being held in U.S. prisons.

A historical look at the U.S. prison population from 1925 to 2014 shows a significant spike occurring during the 1980s when then President Ronald Reagan's infamous war on drugs resulted in increased criminal penalties for all drug-related charges. In the years that followed, the U.S. criminal justice and prison system have been bogged down and overwhelmed by the sheer number of low-level and nonviolent drug offenders who have been sentenced to serve time behind bars.

A drug conviction can negatively impact an individual's life and those of his or her children and family in numerous ways. A criminal record can impede one's ability to pursue educational and job opportunities and lead to job loss and a general breakdown of one's self-esteem and support system. For drug users who face multiple criminal charges, a lengthy drug sentence only serves to further perpetuate their problem and can forever and negatively alter the course of their lives.

As a nation, the financial impact of our high incarceration rate has become impossible to ignore and it's along these lines that Democrats and Republicans have finally been able to agree that reform is necessary. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, "nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving prison sentences for drugs" at a cost of nearly $30,000 annually per prisoner. Consequently, more than one-fourth of the Department of Justice's total budget is spent on maintaining the federal prison system.

In recent months, reform of the U.S.'s criminal justice system has gained the support and approval of numerous influential politicians on both sides as well as prominent conservative donors like the Koch brothers. While there's been a push by both Democrats and Republicans to tackle criminal justice reform within the first quarter of 2016, the fact that it's an election year and that Republicans don't want to appear soft on crime may ultimately force this critical social, economic and civil rights issue to be tabled for yet another year.

Source: The Atlantic, "Republicans Face a Big Decision on Criminal-Justice Reform," Russell Berman, January 2016

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