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“Why All Americans Should Support Obama On Prison Reform”: Our Prison System Makes A Mockery Of The Justice System

Last week, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit federal prison. It’s a shame it took so long, because so many Americans are prisoners, and because so many former presidents probably belonged in there themselves.

Obama’s first words on prison reform last week were absolutely right: “We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison — and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

Much of the commentariat blames our prison system’s woes on the politics of “law and order” from the 1970s through the early part of the new millennium. But what Obama is asking for is “law and order” for our prisoners and prisons. He deserves bipartisan support in this.

On a philosophical level, people who think about prison conditions and sentencing issues tend to divide themselves between retributivists and rehabilitators. Backers of retributive justice believe sentences should be punishing. Rehabilitators believe the criminal justice system should aim to restore criminals to society. I agree with both of them, and think they should agree with each other. I doubt that a convict can be properly rehabilitated unless he is also punished. To punish someone for a crime is to take his moral agency seriously. Taking that agency seriously is a sign of respect not just for the victims of crime, but the perpetrators.

America’s prisons cannot possibly qualify as either punitive or rehabilitative. Instead, they are vindictive, chaotic, and degrading. A prison sentence should be the punishment in and of itself. But today, prisoners are expected to cope with unimagined and uncountable horrors. They are incentivized to join gangs. They are encouraged to commit more violence in order to avoid violence. Rape is pervasive and the threat of rape encourages prisoners to submit themselves to other violent men. There is no instance in which being plunged into barely controlled danger, or being raped, can be a just punishment.

The message a prison sentence should send to the convict is that his crime was a grave violation of a just law, and that his punishment may be unpleasant but it will habituate him to a life of simple order. At the end of paying his debt, he’ll be restored to full freedom.

Instead, our prison system makes a mockery of the justice system. It says that our laws are a joke since we certainly don’t intend to prevent them from being broken even in institutions so closely monitored by the state itself. It tells prisoners that they are human garbage, unworthy of even the most basic respect or safety. The pervasiveness of our jokes about prison rape suggest that we believe that there are some deserving victims of violent sexual assault. There are none. My colleague Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry said it well in a column denouncing prison:

Can there be anything more abject than a society whose police-procedural TV shows include prison rape jokes — and nobody is outraged? Everyone knows that it goes on. Everybody knows that it’s endemic… And we joke about it. On those grounds alone, the entire [prison] system deserves to be scrapped.

President Obama has done well to help humanize prisoners. He has emphasized that some receive unduly long or harsh punishments just for being “teenagers doing stupid things” in the absence of real help from functioning families and social institutions. His statement of empathy, that he could have ended up in prison himself, will be used cynically by his haters. It may well reek of sentimentalism even to some of his supporters. But it is a more vivid way of repeating John Bradford’s statement upon seeing a group of men led to execution: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

There are all sorts of social, scientific, and even fiscal reasons to justify prison reform and sentencing reform. But the key to gaining momentum in this effort is to remind the public that America’s imprisoned are human beings. They may deserve punishment for their crimes, but they do not deserve to become victims of yet more crime.

 

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week, July 20, 2015

July 21, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Federal Prisons, Incarceration | , , , , | 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

   

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