As prison reform movements attract attention across the country, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse ’78 came to campus to discuss the current state of prison reform at the federal level.
The Yale College Democrats and the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project co-hosted the discussion, which provided students with a glimpse into federal decision making on prison reform issues, including those surrounding the recidivism rates and the expenses of maintaining prisons, for example. Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, has worked with an array of Republican and Democratic legislators alike to push for a reduction in the national prison population as part of his broader effort to reform existing policies.
Last month, Whitehouse and Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, introduced a bill based on reforms conducted in their home states, seeking to save taxpayer money by reducing recidivism rates — the rate at which former convicts re-enter the prison population after their initial release — and decreasing the size of the federal prison population as a result. Whitehouse said that, should the bill pass the committee stage, he plans to consolidate it with other legislation currently in the Senate, including a bill proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky.
“One way you can reduce your prison costs is to reduce recidivism, and one way you can reduce recidivism is how you prepare people for release,” Whitehouse said at the event.
He also said prison reform has rare bipartisan appeal: While fiscally conservative Republicans can advocate for prison reform as a means of cutting spending while Democrats can support it as a socially conscious measure, he noted.
Few other causes can achieve such overlapping consensus on the national stage, Whitehouse said.
“If you think this is some wacky liberal idea, look at the Koch brothers who are supporting it; look at the evangelicals who are supporting it,” he said, adding that groups ranging from religious organizations to sheriff’s associations — whose presence in the law enforcement community makes their backing particularly crucial — have been receptive to his and Cornyn’s bill.
Whitehouse also expressed hope that the new Republican majority in the Senate will help the prison reform’s passage because of the increased pressure that the party faces to pass laws as a result.
Before becoming a senator, Whitehouse served as the United States Attorney for Rhode Island. This experience as a member of the criminal justice system, he said, endowed him with a valuable perspective on prison reform, particularly on the question of mandatory sentencing guidelines in the United States — a system that he criticized at the event.
“As a prosecutor, you become more and more sensitive to some of the flaws in the system — from the problem of actual innocence to the potential for abuse of charging decisions in order to buy a plea,” he said. “Having used that power, I’ve become keenly aware of how it can be abused as well — and there are very few checks on its abuse.”
Prison reform, however, transcends policy related to recidivism. Jacob Wasserman ’16, the Dems’ legislative coordinator, noted that many states have had their capital punishment statutes challenged in courts — in fact, some states have eradicated execution entirely. Whitehouse agreed that national sentiment is shifting away from maintaining capital punishment, citing numerous cases in which executed prisoners were eventually exonerated.
The Dems are not currently active in pushing for federal prison reform — Julia Rosenheim ’18, the Dems’ Juvenile Justice coordinator, said the organization’s work relates only to the state level. Still, Wasserman said, the group continues to advocate for a state bill that would eliminate mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, thereby bringing Connecticut in line with relevant Supreme Court decisions, such as the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama.