The midterm elections saw a significant shift with Republicans gaining control of Congress.
If the ongoing efforts from people of faith will be supplemented by an all-too-rare instance of bipartisan political collaboration, perhaps 2015 will be a more hopeful year on the prison front, Dawes says. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
Robert Parham, EthicsDaily.com's executive editor, urged a significant shift in rhetoric to follow, recalling the biblical proverb: "A kind word turns away anger."
Sadly, though not surprisingly, this sage advice has not been heeded so far, leaving hopes dim for increased bipartisanship in addressing key issues.
Soon after the midterms, President Obama committed to work with the newly elected Republican congressional leaders – a hopeful sign.
He then seemed to reverse course, stating that he would use executive action to address immigration reform if a reform bill was not passed by year's end.
Obama announced the actions he would take on Nov. 20, drawing mixed responses from religious leaders as well as from other politicians.
It seems that his actions, however well-intended, will assure that the Senate's immigration bill, passed in June 2013, will not be considered by the House of Representatives and that an alternative House bill will not be submitted.
House Speaker John Boehner said as much in recent interviews. Reports of a symbolic House bill to block Obama's executive action demonstrate the lack of cooperation on this issue.
The proposed Keystone Pipeline and 2015 budget seem to be equally contentious issues that will likely be debated for some time before legislation is passed.
Adding fuel to the fire, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada) recently stated that a top GOP priority was defeating Harry Reid in 2016; no mention was made of prioritizing legislation on key issues facing the nation.
Where are the kind words that can lessen and transform anger and division into reconciliation and collaboration for the common good?
Sadly, in an age dominated by ideologues and partisan leaders, they are nowhere to be found.
Perhaps this is why many of the U.S. "Founding Fathers" – including Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison – initially did not "believ[e] in political parties, which they feared would lead to 'rage,' 'dissolution,' and eventual 'ruin' of the republic," as historian Jay Winik noted in his book, "The Great Upheaval."
Despite the continued dysfunction in Washington, there does seem to be one issue for which there is hope of bipartisan collaboration in 2015: prison reform.
At the state level, California's Proposition 47 – a bipartisan bill that allows judges leeway in sentencing, such as reduced penalties and alternatives to incarceration, including mental health and drug abuse treatment options – was approved by voters in early November.
The legislation was supported by a diverse group, including Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul and the ACLU.
At the national level, two bipartisan proposals have been submitted to the Senate for consideration.
EthicsDaily.com reported in January on what is proving to be one of the most promising bills: the Smarter Sentencing Act, proposed by Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican from Utah.
A September Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report projected that the Lee-Durbin bill, which has received bipartisan support, would save more than $4 billion in the next decade.
A second bill, titled the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014, has been introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) and cosponsored by Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
Both bills have passed the Senate's Judiciary Committee and have been placed on the legislative calendar.
While these are hopeful signs, until one or both of these bills are signed into law, significant challenges remain nationwide.
The U.S. currently incarcerates more than 2.2 million persons – the highest total worldwide. China is second with around 1.7 million, followed by Russia (671,000), Brazil (548,000) and India (385,000).
The necessity of reform is most clearly seen at the state level.
A recent report out of Iowa predicts that a prison system already over capacity will grow by 39 percent over the next decade without significant reform measures.
Nebraska also faces overcrowding, which leaders are seeking to address through "'judicial reinvestment' – redirecting state funds to more effective, and less costly, probation, drug court and parole programs."
Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward (R-District 14) has spoken openly and consistently about the need for prison reform in his state, which he said was "the most overcrowded, underfunded system in the United States today at 190 percent capacity."
Texas has seen significant improvements and population reductions in its prisons and jails following reforms implemented since 2008.
Nevertheless, the state has around 146,000 incarcerated in state prisons and 68,000 in state jails.
California has been given a court mandate to reduce its prison population of more than 117,000.
With an average jail population of 80,000, California and Texas have nearly the same combined prison and jail population. Only eight nations incarcerate more persons than these states.
The struggles of both states – one mostly conservative, one largely liberal – disprove the notion that if one party or the other were in power, that the situation would suddenly improve.
Hopefully, the divisive partisanship driving this logic and preventing other issues from being addressed will not hinder the bipartisan prison reform legislation from culminating in the long overdue reform of a broken system.
Meanwhile, people of faith are engaging the prison issue in ways that have made a positive difference – reducing recidivism and bringing restoration to individuals and communities.
Several of these stories have been highlighted in EthicsDaily.com's latest documentary, "Through the Door."
If the ongoing efforts from people of faith will be supplemented by an all-too-rare instance of bipartisan political collaboration, perhaps 2015 will be a more hopeful year on the prison front.
We already know that many in the faith community are committed to making a positive difference, transcending denominational and theological lines to collaborate for the common good.
We'll have to wait and see if our political leaders will follow their example.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.