Criminal justice reformers won't exactly be shocked that a new report found mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes to be "the primary driver" of prison overcrowding.
The US federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Two years ago, the United States Congress appointed a bipartisan panel, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, to develop practical, data-driven ideas for enhancing public safety and creating a more just and efficient prison system. That it was named after Colson was no mistake: An evangelical who worked tirelessly on behalf of inmates after his own time behind bars stemming from the Watergate scandal, Colson created an organization called Prison Fellowship based on his "vision of a criminal justice system centered on accountability and redemption," as Craig DeRoche, the group's president, said in 2014.
On Tuesday, Colson's namesake took a step toward that goal, releasing a report recommending a reduction in the number of US federal prison inmates by 60,000 over the next decade. Criminal justice reformers won't exactly be shocked that the report found mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes to be "the primary driver" of prison overcrowding, and suggested such sentences be only dished out only to the most violent criminals. The authors also found a whopping 80 percent of inmates convicted of drug crimes had no prior records or criminal history, and encouraged Congress to offer a path for prisoners who've served more than 15 years to have their cases looked at again.
"The task force's recommendations go further than any sentencing reform bill in Congress does and line up with the opinion of almost 80 percent of voters—mandatory minimum drug sentences should become a thing of the past," Molly Gill, government affairs counsel at the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told me in an email. "The punishment should fit the crime and the individual. The task force remembers that important American value, which has been utterly lost in the federal criminal justice system. I hope the bipartisan recommendations add wind to the sails of the reform efforts pending in Congress."
Reforms have been percolating in Congress—specifically in the form of a Senate bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act—since October. The law would take aim squarely at sentencing laws, corrections reform, solitary confinement, mandatory minimums, and juvenile justice. In that sense, this new report just amps up the volume of the pre-existing chorus demanding fundamental change to America's criminal justice system.
"Harsh mandatory sentences continue to strain our prisons and jails with too many individuals who have committed nonviolent, low-level drug crimes, making it difficult to allocate scarce resources effectively," Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a wide-ranging speech at the American Correctional Association's Winter Conference in New Orleans, shortly after the report was released. In her remarks she, like Gill, urged Congress to enact sweeping reforms.
Just last week, 70 leading law enforcement officials—current and former police chiefs and commissioners, attorneys general and US attorneys—wrote a letter in support of the bill. "This is a unique moment of rare bipartisan consensus on the urgent need for criminal justice reform," the letter read. "As law enforcement leaders, we want to make clear where we stand: Not only is passing federal mandatory minimum reform necessary to reduce incarceration, it is also necessary to help law enforcement continue to keep crime at its historic lows across the country."
And on Monday, President Obama—who's pardoned or commuted the sentences of more inmates than any of his predecessors—got in on the action, banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons.
What this all reflects is that the myriad problems of the American criminal justice system—its explosive growth, high rates of recidivism, and violence—are no longer just talking points for advocates or experts, but the topic of discussion at the highest levels of the US government.
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