Sentencing reform is needed now

No country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. How does that grab you?
Feb 3, 2014

 

At 716 per 100,000 people, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. tops every other nation in the world — yup, even Cuba, Russia and a host of other countries that might surprise you.

Among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the competition isn't even close — Israel comes in second, at 223 per 100,000. We’re No. 1, and that’s not a good thing.

A lot has been reported about our nation's prison system and its bloated population. Why is this?

A big reason is federal mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes. After several decades of this — a process by which Congress and state legislatures shifted decision-making powers away from judges and handed it to prosecutors — it’s time to admit failure. And do something about it.

In order to become elected, candidates had to — and in many cases still have to — take a real tough stand on crime. On the surface, this may look good, but the resulting sentencing mandates have helped to bloat the population of our nation’s prisons.

A U.S. Senate bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, is catching the attention of conservatives and liberals in Washington. It addresses the injustice and deficit-busting costs of incarcerating low-level offenders for long stretches. The federal prison population is now 219,000 (up from 25,000 in 1980), about half of whom are doing time for nonviolent drug-related offenses.

And that’s just the federal side of things. State prisons hold many more people on similar mandatory-minimum laws that are testing the humane limits of state facilities, putting pressure on state taxes, and handcuffing state and county judges in sentencing evaluations.

The bill — sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky. — would give federal judges more latitude in mandatory-minimum cases, allowing for lighter sentences if a first-time, nonviolent crime isn’t considered egregious and a shorter term would pose no safety threat to the public.

“Our country’s mandatory-minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the constitutional separation of powers, violates our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer,” Paul said as he and Leahy introduced the measure. “This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory-minimum penalties.”

Federal sentencing guidelines would still speak loudly, notably in cases in which the offender has a previous record, is prone to violence or is deemed a threat to re-offend. A judge levying a sentence below the mandatory minimum would have to issue a detailed, reviewable opinion to justify the decision.

We believe this bill deserves a good look, and not just to keep down costs of our prisons and jails,

Too often judges have to go against their own wisdom and experience in sentencing; they are effectively removed from the process. The stacking of charges carrying mandatory minimums by prosecutors is an efficient way to keep cases from going to trial, but it saps a defendant’s ability to contest the charges.

Plea-bargaining in such cases isn’t much of a negotiation; it’s a take-it-or-leave-it erosion of one’s constitutional right to be heard in court. Taxpayers get socked on the other end, too, after a first-time offender spends a decade or more in jail.

Proponents have said we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget.

We strongly agree.

Our Views reflects the majority opinion of the members of the Grand Haven Tribune editorial board: Kevin Hook, Cheryl Welch, Matt DeYoung, Alex Doty and Fred VandenBrand. What do you think? E-mail us a letter to the editor to news@grandhaventribune.com or log-in to our website and leave a comment below.

Comments

newspaperlawyer

Yup look at the guy who escape from the Ionia Prison... Their is a reason to put someone in prison... and hopefully the mandatory sentencing guidelines continue which includes those for juveniles. Put the death penalty up for a vote in Michigan if you want to cut costs.

skyking007

The Death penalty cost more than life in prison. Our justice system is broken Police lie lab people give phony results witnesses are unreliable, Just one wrong conviction makes the case to not have the death penalty.Also In this day and age we should be able to build a Prison that is escape proof.

16damons

Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor

by Tara Herivel (Editor)

polarize

It's a scam and judges should be insulted by the undermining of their best judgement. Citizens are being robbed of proper due process in these extortionist tactics. Those who call for more draconian laws to be passed against citizens don't understand how this will ultimately undermine everyone's liberty for seemingly innocent offenses. Look what happened to Nazi Germany.

Wolverine49457

I am all for reforms but not added laws to further rob us of our liberty. I feel we imprison far too many people where they become a liability, bitter, resentful and usually a better criminal.
I recall the road building gangs of Georgia (a bit harsh) but nobody wanted to go to prison in GA and they had great roads!
Along similar lines but without the shotgun butt to the face or the iron box in the sun, perhaps we let the non-violent offenders work it off if they choose; I'd rather see them grow food on a work farm where crops can be used to feed the hungry and poor than to sit in jail costing tax money. Who knows, they might come out of the system with some added skills if we make it about learning and enlightening along with hard work. The inmate just might emerge from the system in great shape and have a new found respect for themselves and others. I'm sure there are those deeply angry few that simply will not be turned and that is sad to lose someone to crime or hate.
Most folks you run into feel the current system is not working to the desired goal of reducing crime and repeat offender rolls.

polarize

Well said!

castthefirststone

BLACKS MURDER BLACKS 10 TIMES MORE THAN WHITES MURDER BLACKS, STATISTICALLY TRUE, GOOGLE THESE FACTS; department of justice black on black murder (any year) now shut up ! make the jails as big and as many as the sick liberal universities in america, now shut up again. . . .

Interestedreader

Do the deed pay the price

 

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