Aug 31, 2016    |    News

Hernandez: Goodlatte can lead on criminal justice reform

Originally appeared in: The Roanoke Times
By: J.C. Hernandez

As a millennial, I shudder to think of how many of my peers are spending their best years trapped in prison, with little hope of ever getting out or atoning for youthful mistakes. While there are many people who deserve to be behind bars, many of them have been there for far too long for nonviolent crimes that hurt nobody but themselves. For others, it’s questionable whether they should’ve ever been locked up at all.

Unfortunately, this is all too common and it’s difficult to change. Reform efforts are rare and often fall victim to politics.

Thankfully, Congress may soon take rare steps toward restoring the “justice” that’s too often missing from the criminal justice system. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan promised that Congress will consider a number of pending criminal justice bills as early as September.

These include potential reforms such as reducing the number of federal sentences carrying mandatory prison time, expanding programs to help reformed convicts successfully re-enter society and reducing the severity of penalties for violating senseless regulations.

Any one of these bills could make a major difference in reversing America’s over-incarceration. U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, has an especially important role to play in making these reforms successful. From his position as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Goodlatte can help ensure that these bills get the debate, consideration and passage they deserve.

The sad fact is that prison time has increasingly become the default. Our country infamously houses nearly one quarter of the world’s prison population even though we have just 5 percent of the population. Since the 1980s, when I was born, the federal prison population has grown 735 percent, while the prison population across the states grew by a similar percentage.

The commonwealth is no stranger to this sad trend. Virginia ranks 13th for incarceration numbers in the United States, as of 2011. Local jails are overcrowded, operating over or at capacity. As for our prison population, young people aged 18 to 30 make up 29.7 percent of it. Those in their 30s represent a nearly equal percentage of inmates.

It’s terrifying that vast numbers of my generation are ending up in cells. Prison is all-too-often a place where dreams and futures go to die.

And it’s becoming easier to make the kind of mistakes that merit jail time, at least in the eyes of the law. There are now well over 4,500 federal statutes that lead to prison time if violated. Mandatory minimum laws are proliferating, expanding the basic length of sentences for certain crimes — many of them non-violent.

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