Senate Considers Crucial Legislation Addressing Mass Incarceration
October 31, 2016
By Suzanne Bernstein
These policies, namely mandatory minimums, have led to America’s pervasive problem with mass incarceration. Mandatory minimums were implemented during the 1970s and 1980s to “get tough on crime.” Federally and separately in all states, the goal was to curb crime rates by disincentivizing crime through sentencing. Typically, these sentences required minimums of 5, 10, and 20 years or longer. These regulations have corroded the integrity of the criminal justice system by taking sentencing discretion away from judges and giving too much power to prosecutors. According to the National Academy of Sciences’ report on incarceration, this shift in sentencing power “provoked widespread circumvention; exacerbated racial disparities in imprisonment; and made sentences much longer, prison populations much larger, and incarceration rates much higher.” Moreover, mandatory minimums were not even effective in decreasing the crime rate.
Mandatory minimums were rolled out in conjunction with what Nixon coined as the “War on Drugs.” Calling drug abuse “public enemy number one,” President Nixon waged his “War on Drugs” using military tools abroad, media proliferation at home, and mandatory minimums in the criminal justice system to incarcerate thousands. The latter resulted in a spike in the incarceration rate for drug offenses, increasing at twice the rate of other crimes. By 1997, prisoners convicted of drug offenses made up two-thirds of all federal inmates. Many inmates were non-violent offenders, unlikely to have served as much jail time as they did without the mandatory minimums in place.
Such a high rate of incarceration, fueled by unnecessary mandatory minimums, has had an adverse effect both economically and sociologically on American society. Issues of income inequality, race relations, and social immobility have been exasperated and fueled by the largely minority, lower socio-economic class demographics of the prison population. Mandatory minimums are further enforcing the cycle of disenfranchisement of low-income communities and minorities in the United States. If that isn’t bad enough, minimum sentences use taxpayer dollars.
In most states, funding for corrections is the third highest allocation behind Medicaid and education. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, on federal, state an local levels combined, the United States spent more than $80 billion on the prison system in 2010. This taxpayer money could be used in myriad ways that would be more beneficial to society. Additionally, this enormously high incarceration rate adversely affects the economy with each inmate. Reentry after excessive sentencing proves incredibly difficult, as the employment of this population is 60% compared to the 7.3% unemployment rate of the United States. Such a high unemployment rate among ex-offenders increases their likelihood to commit other crimes, economically immobilizes communities and has heavy impacts on social programs and policy as a whole. Mass incarceration is detrimental to the life of the offender and the job market in general, as 61% of all inmates are in the prime of their working life, between 18-39 years old.
To address the damaging effects of these policies, Senator Chuck Grassley introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) on October 1st, 2015. Garnering bipartisan support, the bill has 34 cosponsors and is widely supported in the criminal justice reform community. The legislation would reform sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenders - a crucial move towards decreasing the large incarcerated population. Specifically addressing the flawed mandatory minimum sentencing practices, the bill expands the existing “safety-valve” exceptions. Original cosponsor Senator Cory Booker writes that this function of the bill “provides greater opportunity for relief for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, … [making it] clear that minor, non-violent participants in large drug conspiracies can be eligible for relief.” Additionally, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would reduce life sentences to 25 years, and limit the consideration of certain prior convictions that would otherwise trigger enhanced mandatory minimum sentences.
There is both a sociological and economic imperative for this bill to become law. Mass incarceration is costing taxpayers money and costing minor offenders their futures. High incarceration rates are systemically and unfairly disenfranchising minority and low-income communities. In order to break this cycle and truly offer each American the chance to succeed, mandatory minimums must be reformed. The role of the criminal justice system is to keep citizens safe, yet many behind bars do not pose a threat to public safety. While the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has been in the works for years, it is still sadly overdue.
 National Academy of Sciences, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2014. [Online]. Available: http://johnjay.jjay.cuny.edu/nrc/NAS_report_on_incarceration.pdf.
 J. Bowling, “Mass Incarceration Gets Attention as an Economic Issue (Finally),” www.brennancenter.org, Sept. 13, 2013. [Online]. Available: https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/mass-incarceration-gets-attention-economic-issue-finally.
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