Prisons, Like the Government, Have Grown Too Big

While the spotlight continues to shine bright on the race to the White House, another race—the push for a criminal justice reform bill—is slinking beneath the radar. RealClearPolitics’ James Arkin reports:

For more than a year, there has been growing momentum on both sides of the aisle, inside and outside of Congress, for restructuring federal sentencing laws. The interlocking goals of would-be reformers are to reduce the prison population both for reasons of fairness and fiscal prudence, while also helping non-violent offenders re-enter society on a productive trajectory.

The United States has the second largest prison population in the world, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. The Bureau for Justice Statistics shows that the federal prison population has risen by hundreds of thousands since the late 1970s, although the increase has slowed in recent years. Much of the prison population boom has been linked with the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences, which is the area of reform lawmakers are most actively working to change.

The push for criminal justice reform began in 2013, when Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act to lower mandatory minimum sentences and created new recidivism programs. Over the past several years, Lee has been actively working to recruit co-sponsors and supporters, and further build the case for reform.

The case pretty much makes itself. The U.S. incarceration rate is staggering, especially when compared to similarly positioned industrialized nations. In the U.S. 693 out of every 100,000 individuals is incarcerated, nearly six times higher than Canada’s rate (114 out of 100,000) and England’s (147 out of 100,000). The rate has also been undergoing an unprecedented rise, with the number of people in prisons and jails jumping from 330,000 to 2.1 million over the last thirty years. That’s a 500 percent increase, while at the same time the population grew by 40 percent.

Of that stunningly-high number, about half of all offenders are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. The number is even higher when it comes to federal prisoners. According to statistics from the Sentencing Project, only 13 percent of those locked up in federal prison have been convicted of a violent offense, while 55 percent are incarcerated for a drug offense. And because mandatory-minimum sentence provisions have been cobbled together haphazardly, many of those drug offenders are spending much longer in prison than violent criminals.

These statistics have real world effects. They destabilize families, disrupt community bonds, and exacerbate economic challenges, which together results in increasing levels of recidivism and future criminality. In many ways, prisons are making criminals out of citizens, not citizens out of criminals.

Congressional Republicans are desperately trying to fix that situation, following the lead of many red states, who have been researching and trying out ways to solve their over-incarceration problem. The Republicans’ bill would do many things, including reducing mandatory minimums for prior drug felons, limiting the three-strike penalty to “serious” drug felonies, broaden the “safety valve” to allow judges more discretion in sentencing and encourage offenders to cooperate with law enforcement to provide intelligence into drug networks, and requires the Attorney General to develop a risk and needs assessment to assess recidivism risk of federal inmates in order to guide rehabilitation efforts.

Reducing recidivism is one of the most important things the bill seeks to accomplish, a point Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and former Executive Director of the College Republican National Committee, focused on in a recent op-ed:

“[The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act] would start to change our prison system into a real correctional system. Sadly, the recidivism rate in this country is unacceptably high. Our prisons have utterly failed to deter the people who go through the system from reoffending. No government agency should get a free pass when it comes to judging their use of taxpayer dollars and the outcomes it produces — and the prison system should be no exception.

That’s why the Senate’s bill would implement recidivism-reduction programming similar to that established in numerous red states to make sure the people leaving prison stay out of prison. Prisoners are encouraged to participate by allowing them to earn time credits that they can use to spend a specific portion of their sentence in either home confinement or community supervision.

These reforms put inmates to work. That isn’t being soft on crime. America is getting ready to get even tougher on it.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking to a group of students at Georgetown University, echoed Norquist’s point.

“There are over 2 million people in our prisons. Many of them are not hardened criminals. They’re not violent,” Ryan told the crowd of young adults. “A lot of them are just people who made a mistake. I think we need to let more people earn a second chance at life. Instead of locking people up, why don’t we unlock their potential?”

That’s exactly what Congressional Republicans are trying to do. By breaking the cycle of recidivism we can not only save taxpayers money, we can help turn would-be criminals into taxpayers themselves.