President Obama’s recent prison visit to Cellblock B of the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma inspires hope that maybe our country is finally ready to address its mass incarceration problem. The president’s prison tour, coupled with his acknowledgement that our country’s excessive prison sentences for nonviolent offenders exact an enormous moral and financial toll, may be what is needed to finally jump start sentencing reform and tackle the issue of mass incarceration. Along with the prison visit (a first for a sitting president), President Obama also reduced the prison sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders and called for legislation restructuring sentencing laws. With these decisive steps from the top, the time for sentencing reform is now.
Much has been written about our country’s mass incarceration problem, including a previous post here explaining how private prison corporations – companies that are buying prisons around the country and running them into the ground while maximizing profits – require that the government keep the prison beds full. As a result of that and a number of other factors, our incarceration rates have increased dramatically in recent years and are now the highest in the world. In fact, the United States does not just incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world (more than Russia, Iran, Cuba, Rwanda, etc.), our incarceration rate is more than five times higher than almost any other country. The chart above and others created by Prison Policy Initiative, provide pretty stunning depictions of just how severe America’s mass incarceration problem has become.
Moreover, it is stark to see how mass incarceration impacts young, black men in particular. Current studies show that almost 1 in 12 black men aged 25 to 54 are presently in prison, the vast majority for low-level drug crimes. There are significant racial disparities in sentencing, the culmination of unequal treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system, from police stops, to arrests, to charging, to plea deals, to sentencing. The result: federal prison sentences imposed on black men are nearly 20% longer than those imposed on white men convicted of similar crimes. Much of this gap has been caused by wide disparities in sentences for possession of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, but that alone does not explain the difference – racism permeates every stage of the system. Indeed, black people use drugs at the same rate as white people, but, although black people make up about 13% of the population, 40% of the inmates serving time for drug offenses are black.
So, how do we end this era of mass incarceration? There are lots of reforms that would help. First, it is time to end mandatory minimum sentences and restore discretion to sentencing judges. Mandatory minimum sentences often result in absurdly severe sentences that far exceed what the crime may warrant. Second, it is time to revise sentencing laws to allow for more non-incarceration outcomes for non-violent offenses, especially first-time offenses and low-level drug crimes. Court diversion programs, drug rehabilitation programs, and other similar programs have far better results at reducing future offenses than incarceration. Investing in treatment, instead of mass incarceration, is a necessary step, and drug sentencing laws must be revised. Third, we need to get “three strikes” laws off the books (the laws that force life sentences for a third felony offense, without distinguishing whether the underlying offenses merit such a harsh outcome). Fourth, it’s time to commute the sentences of people who have suffered draconian results under current sentencing laws. For instance, there are people serving life sentences under three strikes laws, when the underlying offenses are all relatively minor and non-violent. Fifth, it would help to do away with so-called “truth in sentencing” laws, laws that eliminate parole or good time credits for prisoners. Sixth, the government needs to stop privatizing prisons and signing contracts that commit to filling prison beds, regardless of crime rates. And finally, last but not least, this country must face the racism that is so prevalent in the criminal justice system. As the Black Lives Matter movement succinctly encapsulated, police departments and prosecutors’ offices must universally value black lives and end the disparate treatment.