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Story highlights

Senators Chris Coons and Thom Tillis: US criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform

It focuses far too much on criminalization and incarceration and far too little on rehabilitation, they argue

Editor’s Note: Chris Coons is a Democratic US senator representing Delaware. Thom Tillis is a Republican US senator representing North Carolina. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

(CNN) —  

As a Democrat from Delaware and a Republican from North Carolina, we disagree on plenty of policy issues. You might think that would be especially true of an issue as historically divisive and politically challenging as crime and punishment.

Chris Coons
Chris Coons

That’s not the case. We share a strong belief that America’s criminal justice system is broken, focusing far too much on criminalization and incarceration and far too little on rehabilitation.

A compelling example of the urgent need for reform is how our system treats juvenile offenders. We know that young people’s relationship with the criminal justice apparatus has powerful, lasting consequences for them, their families, and their communities. It is therefore vitally important we make sure that all children who come into contact with the criminal justice system are treated fairly and appropriately, are not forgotten, and are afforded an opportunity to rehabilitate and become productive, contributing members of society.

Thom Tillis
Thom Tillis

Our agreement on this issue was on display late last year at a juvenile justice summit, where we shared the stage for a discussion on a key challenge facing our country: a criminal justice system that over-emphasizes incarceration and is woefully inadequate when it comes to rehabilitation, even for our nation’s youth.

Men and women in law enforcement work hard to protect our communities across the country. As legislators, we must be committed to developing a criminal justice system that effectively promotes public safety, fairness, and rehabilitation. We believe Congress has both a moral and a fiscal imperative to ensure that our criminal justice system appropriately calibrates sentences to offenses. That is being smart on crime, not soft on crime.

Despite political disagreements in Congress on a broader criminal justice reform package – disagreements we hope to move past next year – Democrats and Republicans surely can agree that children shouldn’t be locked in a solitary confinement cell for 23 hours a day, or housed with other prisoners twice their age and size, or unnecessarily restrained and shackled for minor infractions, or harshly punished for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

Surely we can agree that juveniles’ interactions with the judicial system shouldn’t be just about punishment, but instead must also focus on understanding the impacts of what they have done and why it was wrong. A system that focuses on rehabilitation, not punishment, doesn’t excuse bad behavior. Rather, it helps all parties heal and move forward, and it keeps all of us safer by breaking cycles of recidivism.

We both recognize that this system is in desperate need of reform. We share a frustration that some politicians in both parties have been too willing to put politics before policy. We also share a belief that our home states offer a road map forward.

In North Carolina, several reforms have been made in recent years, including allowing a juvenile’s criminal record to be expunged of non-violent offenses, limiting detention for certain offenses, and requiring a parent, guardian, or attorney to be present during police interrogations of any child under the age of 16.

In Delaware, this year alone, the state legislature passed laws to expand the use of civil citations instead of criminal charges, to end shackling of youth except where it’s necessary for safety, to provide free legal representation to all children charged with a crime, and to make it easier for juveniles to expunge their records.

We’ve seen some progress at the national level. President Barack Obama rightly acted to end solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. The Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual to sentence juveniles to the death penalty or to a mandatory sentence of death in prison.

Here in Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which we both serve, passed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act on a bipartisan 15-5 vote. Among its many provisions, the bill would limit solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody. More broadly, it would begin to address the imbalance between incarceration and rehabilitation to reconstitute families, save taxpayer dollars, and restore fairness to our criminal justice system. It achieves this without harming the integrity of public safety as prison sentences would only be recalibrated for certain nonviolent offenders and would require careful judicial oversight.

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In Leviticus 19, the Lord urges Moses, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” We do a great disservice to our nation’s future when we do not judge children fairly or treat them justly.

For the many Americans disillusioned by Washington, consider that support for smart and sensible reforms to our juvenile justice and criminal justice systems is slowly but surely gaining traction across party lines. In the year ahead, we will both remain committed to casting partisan politics aside in order to get these commonsense proposals passed through Congress and signed into law.