GOP candidates should talk about prison reform

Obama's push for prison reform
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  • The United States has largest prison population in the world
  • Van Jones: Prison system often financially cripples entire families

Van Jones is president of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America's economy. He was President Barack Obama's green jobs adviser in 2009. A best-selling author, he is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Wednesday night, Republican candidates will face off on CNN. Many people will be tuning to watch the highly anticipated showdown between Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump. But what I'll be waiting to see is whether any of the candidates finally address our country's ballooning prison population.

During the first debate, none of the candidates discussed criminal justice in a meaningful way. They all should have spoken out. After all, criminal justice reform is one of the few areas where GOP candidates can prove their conservative bona fides to primary voters while also signaling to the general electorate their willingness to work across the aisle.
Presidential contender and Ohio Gov. John Kasich successfully began fixing his state's justice system. So did former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who recently dropped out of the 2016 presidential race). Sen. Ted Cruz has decried mandatory minimums, Sen. Marco Rubio said there too many federal crimes and Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee all participated in a Brennan Center collection of essays about mass incarceration.
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    They should talk about it tomorrow. Or, use this opportunity to lift up the many in their own party who have been leading on reform. People such as Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who has received acclaim for his state's reforms. Or Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who has introduced a fantastic piece of legislation. Other conservative champions include my former "Crossfire" co-host Newt Gingrich, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. John Cornyn, former DEA head and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and of course Grover Norquist.
    With so many Republicans speaking out, GOP voters understand the importance of the issue. Ending our overreliance on prisons would cut costs, make our laws and government fairer and more effective and grant millions a second chance.
    If none of that persuades a GOP candidate to address it, what about the families?
    "Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families," a new report, released Tuesday, that shows exactly how our criminal justice system is weakening American families. The product of a year's worth of collaboration between the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (an organization I co-founded), Forward Together and 19 other organizations, it documents the huge problems incarceration creates for families of those impacted.
    Our system does not just imprison individuals; it often financially cripples their entire families. Too often, the result is broken families that struggle to support loved ones while they are in prison. And they are in a significantly weaker position to help after they get out.
    Everyone should be concerned about this quiet crisis because its impact is the opposite of what most Americans think of as justice.
    It has almost become a cliche to point out that the United States is the world's leading incarcerator, locking up more people than China. Those convicted of serious offenses rarely get the help they need to turn their lives around. Perhaps worse, many are serving long sentences for petty or nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses.
    But the economic toll on families of those impacted is just coming into view.
    The numbers are alarming: more than one in three families go into debt just to call and visit their loved ones in prison. One in five families had to take out loans to cover court-related costs. Nearly two-thirds of families had trouble meeting basic needs, such as food and housing, because of the costs of having a loved one locked up.
    What costs? There is the loss of someone bringing in income, to start with. Then, add attorney's fees, court fees or court-ordered restitution. Transportation and accommodation to visit loved ones is not cheap. And that is before you take into account the purchasing the necessities of life at inflated prices in prison commissaries or the obscene expense of prison phone calls.
    And the choices are heartbreaking: One New Orleans family reported going six months without light because it needed to provide financial support for children who were locked up.
    Equally troubling were the stories about the obstacles people face when they come home, no matter how much they desired a new beginning. Our criminal justice system doesn't allow double jeopardy or trying someone twice for the same crime. But we continue to find new ways to punish people, even after they've completed their sentence, paid their debt to society and returned home.
    People with criminal records are barred from getting jobs, being able to vote and often, finding a home -- all things they need to support their families and contribute as taxpayers and citizens. More than two-thirds of the formerly incarcerated people surveyed were unemployed or underemployed five years after release.
    Families are our country's re-entry system. But we give them little support to help them succeed. Two thirds of families with incarcerated loved ones helped them find housing, but one in five families surveyed were themselves denied housing or did not qualify for public housing once their formerly incarcerated family member returned.
    This is unworkable. Fortunately, solutions are now within reach.
    The report itself outlines three basic principles for change: Restructure, Remove and Restore. By restructuring sentences and reinvesting resources, removing barriers, and restoring opportunities, our political leaders could free millions of Americans from the economic prison that traps the families of the incarcerated.
    Good legislation has been steadily gaining momentum -- with GOP support.
    One such bill is the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015. This is a comprehensive bill that would reduce the prison population, reform mandatory minimums, and expand alternative sentencing. The act was introduced in June by Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin.
    Last spring, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced the RESET Act. It's not just an important step toward comprehensive criminal justice reform, it would also create more racial fairness in the system.
    Why? The bill would reclassify some low-level felonies as misdemeanors and eliminate the harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine (mostly used by black and brown Americans) versus powdered cocaine (mostly used by whites). The law would save money, which would then be reinvested in communities, addressing some of the root causes that have led the United States to have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
    Both of these bills, and many more, have Republican co-sponsors. GOP candidates should make the case for reform to the American people
    GOP primary voters will be waiting to see which candidate can lead their party. The rest of us will be wondering who can lead a nation. And the candidate who talks about criminal justice reform will show that she or he can do both.