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It’s President Barack Obama’s last year in office where he's facing a Congress dominated by Republicans that has not been willing to hand him any major victories, but there is one issue that might actually see some progress this year: criminal justice reform, an issue that has bipartisan support despite a hyper-polarized political environment.
With more than 2.3 million Americans incarcerated at a cost of $80 billion per year, a coalition of unlikely allies seeking to provide opportunities for convicted felons after they’ve served their time are optimistic about efforts to reform the system.
President Obama plans to highlight the issue in his last State of the Union speech Tuesday night. To emphasize the level of importance he’s putting on the issue, a former inmate, Sue Ellen Allen of Scottsdale, Arizona, who is working with women reentering society after serving time, will be one of his guests. She is one of two dozen guests who “represent the progress we have made since the President first delivered this speech seven years ago,” according to a statement released by the White House.
When President Obama entered office seven years ago, criminal justice reform was an issue that was being pushed by advocates in the field but hadn’t risen to a level of significance to gain the support of most in Congress.
But after years of slow progress, the issue suddenly gained momentum. States started to adopt some reforms to address major prison overcrowding; Congress reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine; a few libertarian-leaning lawmakers teamed up with liberals to consider broader reform.
Now, many Republicans and Democrats are in support of broad reform. House Speaker Paul Ryan is advocating for changes, presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are campaigning about it, and the wealthy Republican activists the Koch Brothers have been meeting with top White House officials and are teaming up with liberal groups like the Brennan Center for Justice.
"I think criminal justice reform is one of those areas that we've talked about getting things done," Speaker Ryan said on NBC's "Meet the Press" in December.
While differences do exist between the left and the right on some specifics, the House indicated Tuesday that it intends to move forward on the issue. Just hours before the president delivers his address, the House Judiciary Committee advanced two bills addressing reentry issues and mental health.
The executive director of a coalition of groups across the political spectrum working on the issue is optimistic.
"We are encouraged that both Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell have expressed interest in moving criminal justice reform legislation to a vote, and we will be deploying our eight partner organizations to make sure Congress knows the vast majority of Americans want these reforms to pass this year," Holly Harris of U.S. Justice Action Network said.
Perhaps when Obama mentions it in his State of the Union he’ll receive the rare bipartisan standing ovation.