In today’s deeply entrenched political climate, I was amazed to see that a longtime Republican politician had announced that he now supports gay marriage, making him the only sitting GOP Senator to affirm such a position.
Senator Bob Portman of Ohio, who had voted in support of the Defense of Marriage Act as a member of the House in 1996, said Thursday, “I think we should be allowing gay couples the joy and stability of marriage.” Undoubtedly, Senator Portman’s public proclamation on this hot-button issue will bring him some heat from the Right. He broke ranks on a centerpiece of conservative politics; keeping gays and lesbians from the benefits of marriage. A courageous move, in my book, and one that probably should be repeated by some of his fellow Republicans — the tide has changed on the equality question, and a growing number of Americans have recognized this fact at the polls.
I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if more folks at the top levels of our government had the courage to step out of their assigned “positions” and simply did what they thought was right. As a prisoner, I was thinking about the overcrowding in America’s prisons and jails, and the ill-conceived sentencing policies that landed us in such a horrific mess. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported to Congress that the Federal Bureau of Prisons is operating at 138% capacity, creating dangerous conditions for staff and inmates alike, as well as a huge drain on resources and infrastructure for a colossal agency. California is stuck with having to spend tens of billions of dollars on prisoner medical facilities — per order of the Supreme Court, who stepped in to settle the matter and ordered the release of thousands of prisoners. Correctional systems across the country are drowning in a sea of expenses, trying to manage sky-high prisoner populations without the budgets to do so. It is a real problem and one that is only going to become worse without legislative and political attention.
Yet, a large component of the answer is relatively simple: dump some of the Draconian sentencing policies that were so in fashion in the 1980s and 90s, and concede that we had it wrong. Virtually everyone connected to the correctional industry, and to the court systems, understands that our present model of criminal justice cannot be sustained much longer. It has to change and simply changing the way we sentence prisoners is, truly, an easy fix to immediate concerns.
We’ve seen in the last decade a rise of consensus that our system of drug sentencing is fundamentally flawed. For example, everyone agrees that the crack cocaine hysteria of the 1980s has led to sentencing policies that have been implemented in a racially disparate manner; yet we don’t have the political courage to fix them. A token gesture of decreasing the crack versus cocaine ratio from 100:1 to 18:1 has been cheered, but why not really fix it, and just make it even? And why not take it a step further and make the law retroactive so that past wrongs can be righted? (At least then, the War on Drugs will be a little less racist.) And we all know that the time has come to repeal most marijuana prohibitions — many states have already done so — yet our federal government continues to raid medical marijuana dispensaries that are legal under state law. It makes no sense in a fiscal way, or from a justice point of view.
Are our leaders just plain stupid? Probably not. From my vantage point, I suspect their unwillingness to change our way of imprisoning our citizens is simply political fear. No one wants to be perceived as being soft on crime. But I don’t understand the resistance to being smart on crime. Even the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) recently published an exhaustively detailed report pointing out the serious flaws in its own guidelines for sex offenders (primarily for those convicted of child pornography offenses), yet, it made no move to correct them. To me, it’s a lack of courage that prevents us from admitting that we have it wrong, and we need to fix our broken justice system, which produces gross inequality and the needless waste of taxpayer dollars.
Hence, my applause for Senator Portman. A Republican senator standing up for gay marriage? In this divisive climate? Bravo, sir! May you stand tall with your decision to do what is right, not politically expedient.
Of course, Senator Portman’s public change of heart comes from a very personal source: his own son’s revelation that he was gay. Senator Portman said at a news conference, “Our reaction was not about policy or positions. It was about him as a son and letting him know we are 110% supportive of him.” His son’s homosexuality allowed Senator Portman “to think about the issue from a new perspective, and that’s as a dad who loves his son a lot.” He also said he hoped that his son could someday enjoy a long marriage like his parents have for 26 years.
I suppose it will never happen that large numbers of our lawmakers will have such a personal connection — or reaction — to those ensnared in our prison industry, but, still, I wonder what could be if more in high office followed Senator Portman’s lead and simply changed their minds about how we fill our prisons and jails with millions of our citizens, knowing that we have it wrong. I suppose that a discerning citizen can always hope for more. And that’s what the cause of criminal justice reform is about, the hope of a brighter tomorrow. The hope for more. But like myself, I’m sure that you won’t hold your breath until that day comes.