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“There But For The Grace Of God”: America Needs A Justice System Worthy Of The Name

The United States does not have a justice system.

If we define a justice system as a system designed for the production of justice, then it seems obvious that term cannot reasonably be applied to a system that countenances the mass incarceration by race and class of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders. Any system that vacuums in 1 out of every 3 African-American males while letting a banker who launders money for terrorist-connected organizations, Mexican drug cartels, and Russian mobsters off with a fine is not a justice system.

No, you call that an injustice system.

This is something I’ve been saying for years. Imagine my surprise when, last week, President Obama said it, too. “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair,” he said in a speech before the NAACP in Philadelphia, “that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system.” He called for reforms, including the reduction or elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing and the repeal of laws that bar ex-felons from voting.

This was the day after Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, and two days before he became the first president to visit a prison, Federal Correctional Institution El Reno, near Oklahoma City. “There but for the grace of God,” he said, minutes after poking his head into an empty 9-by-10 cell that houses three inmates.

It was more than just an acknowledgment of his personal good fortune. Given that Obama, his two immediate predecessors, and such disparate luminaries as Sarah Palin, John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum are known to have used illicit drugs when they were younger, it was also a tacit acknowledgment that fate takes hairpin turns. And that the veil separating drug offender from productive citizen is thinner than we sometimes like to admit.

Welcome to what may be a transformational moment: the end of an odious era of American jurisprudence. Meaning, the era of mass incarceration.

Apparently, the president has decided to make this a priority of his final 18 months in office. Even better, the call for reform enjoys bipartisan support. Republican senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, among others, have embraced the cause. And the very conservative Koch brothers have chosen to “ban the box” (i.e., stop requiring ex-offenders to disclose their prison records to prospective employers on their job applications).

All of which raises the promise that, just maybe, something will actually be done.

It is long past “about time.” Our color-coded, class-conscious, zero-tolerance, punishment-centric, mandatory minimum system of “justice” has made us the largest jailer on earth. One in four of the world’s prisoners is in an American lockup. This insane rate of imprisonment has strained resources and decimated communities.

It has also shattered families and impoverished children, particularly black ones. So many people bewail or condemn the fact that a disproportionate number of black children grow up without fathers, never connecting the dots to the fact that a disproportionate number of black fathers are locked up for the same nonviolent drug offenses for which white fathers routinely go free.

The “get tough on crime” wave that swept over this country in the ’80s and ’90s was born of the unfortunate American penchant for applying simplistic answers to complicated questions. But bumper-sticker solutions have a way of bringing unintended consequences.

We will be dealing with these unintended consequences for generations to come. But perhaps we are finally ready to take steps toward reversing that historic blunder.

And giving America a justice system worthy of the name.

 

By: Leonard Pitts,  Jr.,  Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, July 22, 2015

July 23, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Mass Incarceration, Racial Injustice | , , , , | 1 Comment

“Mandatory Ineffectiveness”: Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences Don’t Make Us Safer

There are many reasons to oppose mandatory minimum sentencing laws. They frequently require excessive punishments, they put too much power into the hands of prosecutors (at the expense of judges), and they are expensive. Defenders of such laws say they’re worth it because they keep society safe. They argue that crime rates drop whenever mandatory sentences are enacted and rise when they are repealed or reduced. But after 30 years of experience with mandatory sentences at the federal and state level, we know that’s not true.

Congress passed strict mandatory sentences for buying and selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other drugs in 1986. Selling even small amounts of these drugs resulted in automatic five-year prison sentences (10 years for higher quantities). Beginning in 1987, when the new mandatory sentencing law took effect, the violent crime rate actually rose over the next four years by a startling 24 percent and did not return to its 1987 level until a decade later.

Before it reached that point, however, Congress acknowledged that the new mandatory minimum prison sentences were sometimes excessive, and in 1994 voted to exempt certain first-time, nonviolent and low-level drug offenders from mandatory minimums. In those cases, courts were authorized to impose individualized sentences based on the defenders’ role in the crime.

So crime went up, right? Not even close. Since the mandatory minimum carve-out, known as the “safety valve,” was implemented, roughly 80,000 drug offenders have received shorter sentences, and the crime rate has dropped by 44 percent. Needless to say, a theory that says mandatory sentences reduce crime cannot explain how the crime rate dropped so far and so fast when tens of thousands of drug offenders were spared the full weight of such sentences.

The experience of the states is even more devastating to mandatory sentencing’s defenders. Over the past decade, 17 states took steps to reduce their prison populations, including by repealing or curtailing their mandatory sentencing laws. In all 17 states, prison populations fell, and so did their crime rates.

What we have learned is that, while punishment is important, mandatory prison sentences for everyone who breaks the law don’t make us safer. University of Chicago economist and “Freakonomics” author Steven Levitt was perhaps the most influential supporter of pro-prison policies in the ’90s. He said that sending more people to prison was responsible for as much as 25 percent of the decade’s crime drop. Proponents of mandatory sentences cited Levitt at every turn.

But recently, Levitt concluded that as the crime rate continued to drop and the prison population continued to grow, the increase in public safety diminished. He told The New York Times earlier this year, “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration.” But today, Levitt says, “I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.” No one in Congress is proposing anything that radical. But reducing our nation’s prison population and crime rate are achievable goals.

Next month, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on a bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which would give federal courts more discretion to depart from ill-fitting mandatory minimum sentences. The bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would build on the success of the 1994 legislation. Thirty years of evidence suggests this approach will make us safer.

 

By: Julie Stewart, U. S. News and World Report, September 2, 2013

September 3, 2013 Posted by | Criminal Justice System | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Orange Is The New Black”: It’s Time To End The Needless Social Harm Our Justice System Inflicts

America is facing up to one of its greatest failures: our grossly unfair criminal justice system.

In and out of the public eye, corrections officials, legislatures and law enforcement authorities have been inching toward reforming it.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced a historic about-face on how low-level, nonviolent drug crimes will be prosecuted; in particular, he instructed U.S. attorneys to avoid bringing charges against certain offenders that would trigger severe federal mandatory sentencing. If allowed to go forward, Holder’s gambit could lead to significant reductions in the number of people locked up in America.

The U.S. holds the distinction of the world’s highest incarceration rate. One in every 100 adults — 2.3 million people — was behind bars in 2010, according to the Pew Center on the States.

Holder’s announcement is the obvious follow-up to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. The legislation sought to correct the inequities between the sentencing of people caught with crack cocaine and those convicted of crimes related to powdered coke. Five grams of crack, the form of cocaine more likely to be in the possession of African-Americans, carried the same obligatory sentence as that triggered by 500 grams of powder, the preference for many white people.

An ongoing issue is whether the legislation will apply retroactively, something that both Congress and the courts are weighing.

A July report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that about half the states have taken significant steps in recent years to reduce the size of their prison populations, thereby cutting costs to taxpayers. Reforms such as alternative sentencing and lower mandatory sentences for some crimes all played a role.

Also this summer, the Federal Communications Commission voted to lower interstate prison phone rates. This change helps the families of more than 2 million inmates who often paid predatory rates when their incarcerated loved ones called them. The decision was more than 10 years in the making and will greatly affect the ability of families to stay in touch, crucial for reducing recidivism.

While these changes are encouraging, reshaping America’s prisons and our punitive mentality will not be easy. What is the human cost of our penchant for revenge, our emphasis on punishment without much attention to the equal need for rehabilitation? Just consider the newest Muppet introduced by the Sesame Workshop. “Alex,” whose story appears online only, is a character whose father is serving time.

Alex was introduced for a good reason. One in 28 children has a parent who is imprisoned. More than half of America’s prisoners are mothers and fathers with a child under the age of 18. And two-thirds of those parents are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

Consider that deeply. It’s the equivalent of nearly one child from every elementary school classroom in America. Twenty-five years ago, the number was 1 in 125.

Are people really that much more criminally minded than in the past? Or did America decide that locking people up would be more expedient than providing addiction treatment and mental health care and increasing the supervision of those on parole?

It’s not a tough question. And after years of policy that financed the war on drugs, more thoughtful considerations are finally gaining traction.

The fact that violent crime rates are at near generational lows helps. Cutting some sentences, providing more support for low-level offenders, can save on the high cost of prisons for taxpayers, without compromising public safety.

And don’t tell me that this is being “soft on crime.” Those involved in violent and repeat offenses will still have the book thrown at them.

The more the public learns about how mandatory sentencing needlessly degrades nonviolent drug offenders and harms their families, the sooner our legislators will restore sanity and mercy to the criminal justice system. So bravo to Netflix for creating the new series Orange is the New Black. Yes, it’s another “insider’s view” of life behind bars, a genre we can’t get enough of. It conveys the experiences of an educated, well-to-do woman used as a pawn in the drug trade, based on a memoir.

Kudos also to Piper Kerman, the memoir’s author and the one who experienced 11 months in a low-security women’s prison for a drug crime, who is also speaking out about the children of inmates.

She’s using her newfound celebrity to promote alternative, in-home sentencing for some mothers with small children. As she wrote in The New York Times, this program would not only save money but also “rehabilitate women … (and) keep families together — which we know is an effective way to reduce crime and to stop a cycle that can condemn entire families to the penal system.”

And that, more than ever, needs to be our priority.

 

By: Mary Sanchez, The National Memo, August 20, 2013

August 21, 2013 Posted by | Criminal Justice System | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Times Are A Changin”: Once Upon A Time, Everybody Wanted To Be “Tough on Crime”

Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some policy changes meant to reduce the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, people have come to view mandatory minimums as a disaster from almost any standpoint, and as some people have pointed out, mandatory minimums were originally a Democratic idea. Those of you who are too young to remember the early 1990s might not appreciate the raw terror that gripped Democrats in those days. People regularly lost elections when their opponent’s opposition researchers found some obscure vote that could be twisted into a direct mail piece saying, “Congressman Smith voted to let violent criminals out of jail—so they could rape and murder their way through our community. Is that the kind of man we want in Washington?”

As it happens, at the time I was working for a political-consulting firm that created some of those mail pieces. Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime attacks for both primary and general elections, targeting other Democrats and Republicans alike. In 1994, it reached an absolute fever pitch. My firm had about 30 clients, all Democrats, and we did tough-on-crime pieces for every single one. In many cases, we’d make ten or so different mail pieces for a client, and eight of them would be about crime. In other words, in every last race we worked on, every candidate was accusing every other candidate of being soft on crime. The highlight of my consulting career was when I lay down on a sidewalk so our photographer could trace around my body with chalk for a murder aftermath scene we staged.

Of course, it was all tinged with the inescapable whiff of race—the most famous soft-on-crime attack from the era was George H.W. Bush’s 1988 assault on Michael Dukakis over the “Willie Horton” case.  These days we look at the elder Bush as a kindly old man who does things like wear silly socks and shave his head in solidarity with a young cancer patient, and his place in history has been immeasurably aided by the fact that his presidency was nothing like the spectacular disaster of his son’s. But we shouldn’t forget that in order to reach the White House, H.W. enthusiastically led one of the most despicable campaigns of racist fear-mongering in the history of American politics. It isn’t that crime wasn’t genuinely high in those days, because it was. But the media took people’s real concerns and whipped them into a frenzy of fear, talking about crack babies condemned to lifetimes of mental retardation (which turned out to be completely bogus) and terrifying young black male “superpredators” (ditto), turning individual horror stories into lightning-fast policy changes, like the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass, which produced a local-media frenzy the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before or since and led directly to California’s “three strikes” law.

At the time, the question was never, “Is this proposed measure to increase prison sentences a good idea?” The only question, asked by politicians from both parties, was whether it couldn’t be made much tougher. If you suggested that “tough” might not be the best standard by which a policy should be judged, you were risking your political career. Republicans embraced this zeitgeist with glee, and Democrats embraced it out of abject fear.

Fortunately, times have changed, and it’s now possible to have a rational discussion about crime. That simple fact—that politicians can support a variety of proposals on crime and punishment without worrying that their careers will be over as soon as somebody utters the phrase “soft on crime”—is something for which we should be enormously thankful, as much work remains to be done. As Greg Sargent pointed out, “this is an issue around which Dems concerned about racial justice, and conservative libertarians (such as Senator Paul) who share race-based concerns in their better moments, and conservatives who see the issue more through the prism of their opposition to government overreach and ‘one size fits all’ solutions, should theoretically be able to find common ground.”

The most important change in the last 20 years is that crime has fallen so dramatically (see here for instance), and in response we’ve seen a real cultural shift. I’m sure there are still politicians who’d love to tar their opponents as soft on crime. But they know it probably wouldn’t work. And that means there’s at least a chance we can make real policy change.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, August 13, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Shifting Winds, Changing Landscape”: Eric Holder Steps Up, GOP Stands Down On Sentencing Reforms

If you missed Rachel’s segment last night on Attorney General Eric Holder’s dramatic announcement on sentencing in drug crimes, it’s well worth your time. Indeed, by any fair measure, yesterday may be one of the most important days of the Obama administration’s second term, at least insofar as criminal justice is concerned.

Holder declared what many have long argued: too many Americans convicted of non-violent drug crimes are stuck in too many prisons for far too long. It’s a policy that costs too much, ravages families and communities, and has no practical law-enforcement rationale. That the Attorney General is using his prosecutorial discretion to circumvent mandatory minimums is an incredibly important step in the right direction — it’s the kind of move that will put fewer Americans behind bars for low-level, non-violent drug crimes.

What I was also eager to see were the next-day reactions, most notably from the right. Would Holder face a backlash from Republicans? So far, no. The conservative Washington Times ran this report today:

Grover Norquist, a conservative libertarian Republican and founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform … [claimed] that the Holder directive simply cribs from legislation by Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, along with Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, that would give federal judges greater discretion in sentencing certain drug offenders.

In the House, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia Democrat and ranking member on the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security, and investigations, also have introduced legislation to reduce recidivism and federal prison costs through post-sentencing risk assessments and other evidence-based programs developed by states.

Mike Huckabee responded to the AG’s announcement by saying he “finally found something I can agree with Eric Holder on.”

As best as I can tell, not one member of the congressional Republican leadership in either chamber criticized Holder’s decision in any way.

And that matters enormously.

As we discussed earlier in the summer, in the not-too-distant past, the conservative line on these issues lacked all reason and nuance. The right wanted more prisons, more prisoners, harsher sentences, an aggressive “war on drugs,” and no questions. To disagree was to invite the “soft on crime” condemnation. As the nation’s prison population soared to unprecedented levels, the right simply responded, “Good.”

The landscape has, however, changed rather quickly. Twenty years ago, if an Attorney General from a Democratic administration had made this announcement, conservatives would have condemned “letting drug addicts onto our streets.” Yesterday, such reactionary, knee-jerk reactions were muted, and among prominent Republicans, non-existent.

On the surface, this gives the Obama administration some breathing room — Holder and other officials will realize they can adopt common-sense measures without facing political fury and instigating a national uproar. But below the surface, the response suggests more systemic reforms may yet be possible — the A.G.’s move represents progress, but Congress will have to act to make more sweeping changes.

And for the first time in recent memory, that now seems realistic. As Greg Sargent explained yesterday, as the political winds shift on this issue, the “soft on crime” attacks “no longer have anywhere near the cultural potency or political relevance they once did. As a result, “this may now be an area where compromise is possible.”

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 13, 2013

August 14, 2013 Posted by | Criminal Justice System | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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