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In 2015, The US Finally Agreed It's Time to End Mass Incarceration

Spurred by President Obama, political and law enforcement leaders called for changes to the justice system this year — and, extraordinarily, both parties agreed.
Photo via Pixabay

When criminal justice scholars look back at the explosion in America's prison population in the late 20th and early 21st century, they may well mark 2015 as the year it began to come to an end.

It was, after all, the year that President Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit a federal prison and meet with prisoners serving time for drug offenses, a moment that would come to symbolize the recognition that drug crime policies had locked up more Americans than, perhaps, they meant to.


The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, for example, created a three-strikes rule as a "tough on crime" selling point. But many nonviolent offenders, including drug users or low-level mules who had been caught multiple times with drugs, were sentenced to long sentences, keeping more people in prison for longer.

Obama spent 2015 taking small symbolic steps on criminal justice reform. In April, he commuted the sentences of 22 prisoners serving time for drug offenses and in July, another 46 prisoners received commutations. He also gave a speech to the NAACP calling for criminal justice reform.

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"[The criminal justice system] remains particularly skewed by race and wealth and has ripple effects," Obama said before the NAACP that month. "People of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime."

He then released 6,000 drug offenders, incarcerated for non-violent offenses, from prison early.

But it wasn't just Obama's focus on drug offenders and the federal prisons that changed the conversation around criminal justice in 2015. Members of both parties in Congress found common ground in deciding to try and reduce the prison population this year as a way to reduce government costs, fix an unfair system, and rein in an overreaching federal government. Bipartisan coalitions introduced sentencing reforms in the House and Senate in October.


"If I were going to summarize this year I would call it the year of unlikely alliances," Jessica Jackson Sloan, the National Director of the #cut50 campaign, told VICE News in December, citing the Koch brothers, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul, and Cory Booker as examples of strange bedfellows. The #cut50 campaign aims to reduce the prison population by 50 percent by 2020 and is approaching that goal from three political angles: The costliness of the prison system, the overreach of government and loss of liberty, and the moral issue of a system that fails to rehabilitate people or give them fair sentences. The average cost of keeping an inmate in federal prison is about $30,000 a year, according to the Federal Register.

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"The right coming forward on this issue really motivated or allowed the left to speak out against the issue again, whereas you saw [the left] run from the issue before because they didn't want to be perceived as weak on crime," Sloan said.

Another key group calling for changes to both the war on drugs, a term coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971, and the prison system were law enforcement leaders themselves, a group of whom gathered in Washington, DC, in October to say that the war on drugs was a "tremendous failure."

The police chiefs of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston showed up to announce the formation of the group Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, made up of more than 125 chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, and attorneys general.


Related: The War on Drugs Isn't Just Destroying Lives — It's Also Killing the Environment

"Police departments can't be at war with the communities they serve," said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. That statement was significant coming from LA, where the relationship between police and communities of color has been notoriously antagonistic following the 1991 beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots.

Alison Holcomb, director of the Campaign for Smart Justice at the American Civil Liberties Union, said she thought the change in posturing from the law enforcement leaders was, at least partially, on account of all the media attention paid to the Black Lives Matter movementand the relationship between police and black communities across the country.

"I do think, especially this year with the Black Lives Matter movement and all of the videos showing what's happening with policing in some cities, there's an understanding that the policing occurring in these neighborhoods is directly tied to the effort to eradicate the drug trade. These are dramatic examples of the disproportionate response of law enforcement to what people recognize is a health problem," Holcomb said.

"The right and left are sitting down and talking to one another. On what other issue can you say that that's true?"

There's also been significant progress on criminal justice reform at the state and local level, said Holly Harris, executive director of the US Justice Action Network, which campaigns for reforms with state legislatures. Harris pointed to victories in Ohio and Michigan as a signal that states are leading the way in justice reform. Bills to "ban the box," or remove questions about criminal history from job applications, are moving through the Ohio legislature, she said. "And so goes Ohio, goes the country, as the saying goes," Harris said.


Michigan lawmakers succeeded at passing a civil asset forfeiture reform package, an issue that flies under the radar but has enormous public support, she said. The package will prevent law enforcement agencies from seizing a suspect's property.

"I think it's been a remarkable year, not just because we have big bills moving at the federal level and in the states but also because the right and left are sitting down and talking to one another. On what other issue can you say that that's true?" Harris said.

Brian Elderbroom, a senior research associate in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute who spent much of 2015 analyzing how the US might begin to lower its prison population, said he thought 2015 might be considered the year "the US started getting serious about its unique obsession with incarceration."

Many observers pointed out that while the US has about 5 percent of the world population, it houses 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

Elderbroom cited the sentencing reform bills in Congress, as well as reform legislation passing in conservative states like Utah and Alabama, as signs that it's been a successful year.

"Whether or not this momentum leads to meaningful reductions in the prison population hinges on the willingness of policymakers to act decisively in 2016," Elderbroom said.

Despite the turnaround in public statements and political opinions on the issue, some observers say not enough has changed on the ground — in the way officers police the streets and in the way prisoners are treated in jails — to heap too much praise on 2015.


"Pretty much nothing good happened in prisons," said Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News and director of the Human Rights Defense Center.

Related: America's Top Cops Called the War on Drugs 'A Tremendous Failure'

Wright said there is still no discussion among the political class about reforming prisons, improving their oversight or transparency, or treating prisoners better. While there has been a little forward movement on sentencing reform and policing reform, there has been little talk of prison reform, he said.

"People get killed, people die, people get raped, and no one's responsible. Where does the buck stop? It never stops anywhere," he said.

There was more attention paid to the private prison industry in 2015, he said, with news stories about one of the major private prison companies losing a contract after an inmate riot in Texas. But while the companies' stock prices have taken a hit, perhaps on account of that publicity, "they're still making money hand over fist," Wright said.

According to the ACLU, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners.

The companies have diversified their hold on the criminal justice system too, Carl Takei, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project, said. GEO Group acquired contracts for GPS monitoring for immigrants on alternative detention, while Corrections Corporation of America expanded into halfway houses, he said.


"If the number of people in prison goes down, that harms their business, except if they have become vertically integrated and have prisons and halfway houses and supervision all under their umbrella," Takei said.

Private prisons have become a talking point for the 2016 election, as both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have said they would end federal contracts with private prisons if elected. Both also stopped accepting donations from private prison lobbyists.

The one thing that hasn't happened this year but should, many observers agreed, was a consensus that the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the law that brought about an increase in the prison population, including through its three-strike laws, should be repealed or largely reversed.

Related: How Drug Trafficking Conspiracy Laws Put Regular People in Prison for Life

"We need to see a federal bill. If you look at it at the end of the day, the federal justice system is a disaster that has gone from 25,000 inmates to 200,000 inmates. By any measure it's been a disaster. We've got to turn back from that disastrous crime bill that Bill Clinton signed back in the day. We've got to turn the clock back," Harris said.

"The federal crime control act of 1994 was a bad idea, and no one's talking about repealing it," Wright said. "Talking about stuff gives the illusion that something is about to change, and it's dissuading people from actually enacting change."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Photo via Pixabay