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Other Views: Prison reform’s moment has come

Grand Forks Herald

Energy, housing, K-12 education: These and other topics from past “threesixty”-page features in the Herald remain stuck in the trench warfare of partisan politics.

But remarkably and improbably, today’s topic of prison reform is different. On this issue, a meeting of the liberal and conservative minds is under way, and it’s bringing about real change in local, state and federal prison systems.

That very much includes North Dakota, where Republicans retain the governorship and both houses of the Legislature, but implicitly are blessing the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s shift toward rehabilitation and away from “prison as punishment alone.”

North Dakota isn’t alone. “In Texas, a conservative group called Right on Crime has led the way on prison and sentencing reform — earning plaudits from, among others, California progressives,” author and educator Eric Liu wrote last month for CNN.

Similarly, “strange bedfellows — from liberal Democrats such as Sen. Dick Durbin to tea party darlings such as Sen. Mike Lee, from the NAACP to Americans for Tax Reform — are all proposing reductions in mandatory minimum sentences.

“U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s calls for such reductions have been cheered by some of the same Republicans who otherwise want to impeach him,” Liu noted.

One trend that helps explain the convergence is the fact that America’s violent crime rate has fallen. So, it’s not quite as important for politicians running for office to be seen as being “tough on crime.”

Another factor is the sheer size and expense of modern America’s corrections system, by far the biggest in both categories in the world. As Molly Gill of the nonpartisan group Families Against Mandatory Minimums told USA Today, “This is a big government program run amok, if you’re a conservative. And if you’re liberal, this is a policy that’s hugely flawed in the racial disparities and its impact on the poor.”

Last but not least, evangelical conservatives have come to lament the system’s utter lack of “redemption” — the fact that male ex-convicts are marked men who can’t find work, can’t find housing and often can’t find a marriage partner, either.

Add it all up, and you’ve got a rare moment of“crosspartisanship,” Liu’s term for an issue “where people from both parties converge on a common principle.”

North Dakota’s corrections system is smart to takeadvantage of it. Other state and local corrections systems should, too.