Sens. Coons, Tillis team up on justice reform

Thom Tillis wants the far left and far right to go away and people in the center to step up and solve problems.

That’s the mindset the North Carolina Republican has about colleagues blocking the criminal sentencing reform bill he is currently working on with fellow Senator Chris Coons, D-DE.

In a panel earlier today with The Washington Post, both men discussed the changes the system needs and the status quo.

“Ian Manuel was a Florida juvenile in solitary for 18 years in an adult prison. Solitary confinement is significantly overused and it breaks the spirit. We need to change this,” Coons said.

Manuel wound up in jail after shooting a woman in a botched robbery while still in his teens. After being sentenced to life in prison, Manuel began his sentence at the age of 14 around other adults. He became depressed and attempted suicide several times before being released in 2016 with the help of his victim.

President Obama did ban solitary confinement for young offenders in the federal prison system in January, but according to the American Civil liberties Union, more than 100 people are still subject to this form of punishment at the state level of corrections.

According to Tillis, the best way for the federal government to change this is to start by offering alternatives to incarceration.

“I was in Gaston County [North Carolina] two weeks ago to open up a drug diversion program where we’re trying to give youth an opportunity and alternatives to jail. Outside of that, we can also give generous grants to programs that aid non-violent offenders,” Tillis said.

According to a recent report from the New York Times on a Women in Recovery prison avoidance program in Oklahoma, diversions work. The females who went through the diversion had a re-offend rate of five percent compared to a 14 percent re-offend rate of women who end up serving time in Oklahoma state prisons.

Alexandria, Virginia city employee Jonathan Leonberger said that programs like this deserve a bigger embrace from the government.

“I believe in positive youth development, less incarceration and more diversionary tactics would work better in my opinion. The government needs to take a bottom up and not top down approach,” Leonburger said.

Though many liberal and conservative people agree that criminal sentencing standards need to change, some politicians do not believe a more rehabilitative approach is the proper course.

In May, Politico reported that Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton said that the United States has an “under-incarceration problem,” and that attempts to show more empathy to those caught up in the justice system were a “baseless” argument.

Coons and panel audience members said they were ready to meet the challenge from Senator Cotton and his conservative allies.

“The risk of a bad offender getting out and a Willie Horton style attack ad being made is one we have to be willing to take or we won’t ever fix anything,” Coons said.

Horton is a convicted murderer who became infamous during the 1988 U.S. presidential election. During the campaign, Republican allied groups used Horton’s image to slam Democratic nominee and then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for running an inmate furlough program in his state. Horton was on that program when he committed various crimes including rape.

“Ultimately, a lot of people who would be effected by what we saw talked about today are just kids. They’re in and out of the system for things like armed robbery and deserve a second chance,” said Sheron Murrey, a teacher for at-risk youth in Washington, D.C.

According to the Anne E. Casey Foundation [A criminal justice advocacy group], there are more than 225 children in prison today per 100,000 people.

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