Our Best Chance to Fix a Broken System

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

New spotlights on violent confrontations between police and black and brown communities as well as a deeply-felt understanding that mass incarceration has exacted a devastating and unequal social and economic toll have created unheard-of momentum on both sides of the aisle for criminal justice reform.   It is essential that we make the most of this moment in time, and this rare example of bi-partisan agreement that something must be done to fix our broken criminal justice system. 

What’s kept us from enacting reform?  Until now it’s been the prevailing “tough on crime” political climate in this country. Since the days of Willie Horton and the demonizing of black men in political campaigning, politicians have been deathly afraid of what would happen at the next election if they embraced criminal justice reform policies, irrespective of the merits of doing so. It was far more expedient to keep doing what we were doing: locking people up.

Recently, though, legislators of all political persuasions have shown a greater comfort level discussing alternatives to incarceration. Are they acting out of some moral obligation to right injustices? Are they less skittish on the topic because top conservative names like the billionaire Koch brothers, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist provide cover?  Both?  It’s interesting to speculate why, but we should take advantage of this convergence regardless of the reasons for it, because it’s having an effect. 

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Just last month a bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators including Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the conservative chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation that would among other things reduce mandatory minimum sentencing, allow judges more discretion in distinguishing low-level street hustlers from drug lords, and provide incentives and opportunities for federal prisoners to participate in rehabilitative programs.

Washington pundits are not sanguine about passage of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in the coming months. Still, the bill is very likely our best shot at substantive criminal justice reform for years to come.

Working in our favor is the stark reality that something simply has to be done to reign in the exploding prison population and the soaring costs that come with operating our prisons at capacity rates. And there’s a toll exacted on society when individuals who could have been diverted to non-custodial programs instead served long terms in prison. Each year, more than 600,000 people are released from federal and state prisons, according to Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project. Once released from custody, many are ill-prepared to obtain jobs, housing and financial stability.  Programs that provide alternatives to incarceration and help individuals return to being productive citizens serve the interests of public safety, the economy and the public good, and need the sort of funding that Congress can provide.

Following New York’s lead on Sentencing Reforms

Also working in our favor is the fact that the national conversation about how to address drug crimes and punishment has also shifted in recent years. With the spectacular rise of heroin as a white suburban and rural drug problem in America, the public response has been more compassionate with a focus on the underlying causes of addiction instead of punitive measures as a solution.

Put another way, instead of just sentencing blacks and Latinos from poor neighborhoods to mandatory minimums for selling crack, courts must now mete these sentences out to middle-class or affluent white men and women with heroin addictions whose families have resources and connections.

Here in New York, while we knew just years into the experiment that it was a failure, it took 35 years to change the Rockefeller drug laws of the early 1970s. But it finally happened. And since 2009, the state’s prison population has decreased by 25 percent. Other jurisdictions are also making changes. Under California’s Proposition 47 a half-dozen property offenses have been re-classified so that cases are handled at the local level, erasing the long prison sentences that would have been doled out if the cases were still processed at the state level. The money saved on incarceration – estimated at $100 million a year – is being spent on treatment programs and community supervision.

Other states have followed in New York’s footsteps and enacted sentencing reforms that bring the system something closer to fairness. Under Mississippi’s former “Truth in Sentencing” policy, for example, an inmate had to serve 75 percent of his/her sentence before being considered for parole. Today, non-violent offenders are considered for parole after serving only 25 percent of their sentence.

On the federal level, the real challenge for Congress is to recognize that it wasn’t a single policy or practice that gave rise to the problem of mass incarceration, and that correcting it can’t be done at the single stroke of a single pen. But we have to start now. Enacting federal sentencing reform makes sense, and it should be done without delay.  The fiscal and social health of our nation depends on it.

Issues Covered

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