President Barack Obama recently visited a federal prison in Oklahoma as part of his effort to build support for changes to the criminal justice system.
The president deplored the sharp increase in the prison population over the past 35 years and said, “We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to control crime.”
Republicans in Congress sound amenable to some reforms. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is working to have a bill ready before the August recess that would give judges more discretion in sentencing some offenders.
Does it make sense for Congress to ease federal sentencing laws? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
Viewed from certain angles, the United States looks little better than a totalitarian state.
Consider these numbers from The Sentencing Project:
—In the last two generations, America’s state and federal prisons have seen their populations explode from just more than 200,000 in 1960 to a hair past 1.6 million in 2013.
—The U.S. imprisons more than 700 out of every 100,000 citizens — first in the world. Even Russia only puts 475 out of every 100,000 citizens behind bars.
—Total state spending on prisons was $6.7 billion in 1985 — and $51.9 billion in 2013.
—A whopping 50.7 percent of federal prisoners are serving time for crimes related to illegal substances.
—If you’re an American man, you have a one-in-nine chance of being jailed in your lifetime. If you’re a black American male, the chances are one-in-three.
All this imprisoning tears apart families, makes it difficult to obtain legitimate work and generally hurts the fabric of our society. And they’re hives of mental illness — some created by the prison experience — a place to dump the confused bodies of men and women who simply can’t function decently in polite society.
The result? People who do get out frequently lack the skills to do anything but go back in sooner rather than later.
So the system is expensive and disruptive. And if it once seemed to reduce crime, well, most people can now agree it does more harm than good.
“Our prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more hardened criminals,” Obama said recently. “We have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society, that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around.”
Reducing minimum sentences is just one step among many needed to achieve that goal. But yes, we should take it immediately.
It’s rare to find bipartisan agreement on anything these days, in large part because bipartisanship is for suckers. But on the question of reforming the federal criminal justice system, political consensus is welcome. Being “tough on crime” doesn’t require stubborn refusal to change in the face of certain realities.
One such reality is that not all offenses are worthy of prison time. Some states have already figured this out. Until last year, California had a highly effective court program that diverted thousands of potential felons from prison and into treatment. If convicts successfully completed treatment and found gainful employment, their conviction would be expunged.
And if they dropped out? Directly to prison they would go, with a nasty felony on their record.
Giving judges the flexibility to try certain offenders in court was good for society and good for taxpayers. Recidivism rates declined and county governments saved money on incarceration costs.
Another reality is that mandatory minimum sentences are akin to school zero-tolerance policies. When soulless bureaucratic automatons mete out harsh punishments for “offenses” that no sane person would consider dangerous, let alone wrong, people begin to hold the law in contempt.
Removing the human element — fairness, proportion, basic common sense — from criminal proceedings may prevent some liberal judges from being too lenient. But it’s hardly conducive to justice.
Congress may relax rigid sentencing rules, but legislators would do well to address the more pernicious problem of “overcriminalization.”
Right on Crime, the Texas Public Policy Center’s criminal justice reform project, notes that the Constitution “lists only three federal crimes, but the number of statutory federal crimes has now swelled to around 4,500.” Many of those crimes are so obscure and picayune that civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate claims Americans may be unwittingly committing as many as three felonies a day.
Could anything better exemplify a government without limits or accountability?
Any worthwhile reform would tackle overcriminalization first and foremost. Fewer federal crimes would mean fewer minimum mandatory sentences, and the prison population would decline as a matter of course.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.