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The president of a prison workers union hit back against comments made late last week by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton that the U.S. has an “under-incarceration problem,” highlighting the different conversations being had about mass incarceration in the country.

“Even with the recent inmate decline, our prison system remains terribly overcrowded and understaffed. For example, high and medium security facilities are 32% and 47% overcrowded, respectively,” wrote Eric Young, President of the Council of Prison Locals, a union representing over 30,000 prison workers across the country, in a letter addressed to Cotton. “Given these statistics, it’s hard for me to understand why you would think our country has a problem with ‘under incarceration.'”

Cotton gave a speech last week at the Hudson Institute in which he said that the nation had an “under incarceration problem,” apparently ignorant of a vastly different national conversation focused over the effects of the “tough on crime” criminal justice policy pursued by successive administrations over the past 30 years.

Cotton’s speech also conflated the low rate of arrests for property and violent crimes with a dearth of inmates filling American prisons. “Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes,” he said during his speech. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”

The Council of Prison Locals, on the other hand, has been an advocate of criminal justice reform that would see nonviolent offenders and other inmates who pose no threat to the general public, like those in jail on drug possession charges, be given lighter sentences.

“We accept that the sentencing reform package pending in the U.S. Senate is not a perfect bill. However, this is one of those areas where we must not allow the perfect to get in the way of the good – and this is a good bill,” wrote Young in another letter to Democrat Senate Whip Dick Durbin back in 2013 when the Smart Sentencing Act of 2013 was being drafted. “The Grassley compromise bill takes much needed steps in the direction of reducing the number of people we keep incarcerated at federal prisons while also providing fairness in sentencing.”

Nevertheless, Cotton’s office was undaunted by the arguments of a prison guard union with an intimately greater day-to-day interaction with the country’s prison population. “When over half of violent crimes go unsolved, there are many heinous murderers and other dangerous offenders walking the streets who should be in prison,” said Cotton’s communications director, Caroline Rabbitt, to Politico. “Ask the wife, son, or father of a murder victim whose assailant is never arrested whether there’s at least one more criminal who should be incarcerated.”

Given nearly half of the prison population consists of people arrested on drug possession charges, there are plenty of Americans who also don’t deserve to be incarcerated for what constitutes a misdemeanor in other countries.

Photo: Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) discusses the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron    

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