According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in the year 1980 we had approximately 501,900 persons incarcerated across the United States.By the year 2000, that figure has jumped to over 2,014,000 prisoners. The current level of incarceration represents the continuation of a 25-year escalation of the nation’s prison and jail population beginning in 1973. Currently the U.S. rate of 672 per 100,000 is second only to Russia, and represents a level of incarceration that is 6-10 times that of most industrialized nations. The rise in prison population in recent years is particularly remarkable given that crime rates have been falling nationally since 1992. With less crime, one might assume that fewer people would be sentenced to prison. This trend has been overridden by the increasing impact of lengthy mandatory sentencing policies.
The proliferation of harsh mandatory sentencing policies has inhibited the ability of courts to sentence offenders in a way that permits a more “problem solving” approach to crime, as we can see in the most recent community policing and drug court movements today. By eliminating any consideration of the factors contributing to crime and a range of responses, such sentencing policies fail to provide justice for all. Given the cutbacks in prison programming and rates of recidivism, in some cases over 60% or more, the increased use of incarceration in many respects represents a commitment to policies that are both ineffective and unfair. I believe in equal, fair and measured punishment for all. I don’t advocate a soft, or a hard approach to punishment. But we must take a more pragmatic look at what the consequences of our actions are when we close our eyes and blindly carry out sentencing which is neither fair, nor warranted, given the circumstances.
I would like to address two primary areas in punishing offenders that I believe need attention, Mandatory Minimums and Three Strikes Policies. Our lawmakers must take on these misguided policies, which have thus far been inefficient and ineffective. They must do this in order to curb our rising prison populations and return us to a level playing field of fair punishment for all persons regardless of race, sex, or ethnic background.
The mandatory minimum sentencing policies that now exist in every state have been used disproportionately for drug offenders, who now constitute one of every four inmates nationally. Because of the severe and rigid sentencing scheme mandated by the drug laws, low-level drug offenders face years in prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the total population of drug offenders in custody, the average maximum sentence for first time felony offenders convicted of drug related charges range between 87.6 months for Class B felonies to 42.4 months for a Class E felony. These statistics also reveal that one in five of the drug offenders incarcerated had no prior felony convictions. Nearly two-thirds of these drug offenders also were never convicted of a violent felony in the past.
What we are dealing with here is non-violent, first time offenders and judges have no choice in most states but to incarcerate them for lengthy periods of time which only places more pressure on our prison systems. As I stated earlier, I have a down the middle approach to punishment, not too hard or not too soft. Stiff prison sentences can be appropriate for addressing violent crimes and protecting our communities. But such sentences are misguided and destructive when it comes to these types of nonviolent drug offenders. Also, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons they cost the American taxpayer approximately $20,747 per inmate per year. Another bi-product of mandatory sentencing is a disparate impact on non-white offenders. The United States Sentencing Commission and Federal Judicial Center have found that among offenders who engaged in conduct warranting mandatory minimums, white offenders were less likely than blacks or Hispanics to receive the mandatory minimum term. I believe there are better alternatives to this policy that can more effectively express our values and accomplish our goals without increasing our prison populations and disparaging minorities.
Another sentencing policy that is having a major impact on punishment and its fairness are the so called “3 Strikes Laws” that many states have