Congress Gets to Work on Overincarceration

Last month, Congressmen Sensenbrenner and other members of the House Judiciary Committee announced a task force to address the ever increasing scope and breathe of the federal criminal system. This news drew cheers from activists, policy wonks and lobbyists all across the nation and the political spectrum, including many at the ACLU. Now, after the task force's first public hearing last Friday, the initial optimism has turned towards a renewed effort to push the task force to address the true culprits of over-criminalization and over-incarceration.

The most popular topics at the hearing—government over-regulation and the absence of a criminal intent requirement in many laws—are worth addressing and a good start. We've all heard the stories of people sent to prison for bizarre and unnecessary reasons, like the father and son in Florida who were jailed for 21 months due to a retroactive ruling by the EPA against putting sand in the foundation of homes in the Wetlands. But the abundance of new federal crimes is not what drives the soaring number of federal prisoners.

Focusing solely on those topics will limit the task force's ability to reform a criminal justice system that is unjust, unnecessarily large, and excessively expensive. To address federal prisons running 40% over-capacity and correctional budgets exceeding $75 billion annually, they must look to fixing the school-to prison pipeline, explosions in mandatory minimums sentences, and excessively harsh drug sentences.

Data from the Bureau of Prisons reveals that almost 50% of the federal prison population is serving drug-related sentences, with another 12% for immigration offenses. Defendants prosecuted for fraud, non-fraud white collar, and all "other crimes" constitute less than one-quarter of the federal prison population.

Not only are there more drug related defendants in prison, but they often serve longer sentences due to mandatory minimums. Sixty percent of federal drug offenders in 2012 received a mandatory sentence, with almost one-third receiving a minimum of 10 years.

When Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenders in the 1980s, it intended those sentences to punish major traffickers and kingpins. Yet, since sentences are triggered by drug quantities involved in the offense rather than by role in drug hierarchies, even low-level offenders receive them. Almost two-thirds of low-level offenders received a mandatory minimum sentence, averaging around 77 months per person.

The school-to-prison pipeline is also to blame for the explosive growth of the federal system. By putting police inside school walls and criminalizing non-criminal, juvenile misbehavior, the pipeline funnels young people under 18 into adult prisons. It goes without saying that kids with a juvenile arrest record are far more likely than their peers to struggle in school, face more juvenile charges, and face adult criminal penalties.

Yes, we can start on unneeded regulation, the overly complicated structure of federal law, and laws without a criminal intent component—as long as we don't end there. To fix what has truly run awry in the federal justice system, the task force must focus on the most prolific problems of our ‘incarceration nation.'

We hope that members of the Task Force, who plan on presenting the full House Judiciary Committee with recommendation after 6 months, will take this time to examine the full depths of the federal justice system and present the committee with ideas to address the biggest problems.

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Just the fact im the only comment is proof that this issue is swept under the rug while millions of non violent small time offenders serve ridiculous unfair sentences
Perhaps once this corupt government self implodes true liberty and justice will be the rule. Until then one has to rely on Organizations with insufficient funds to help the masses. God help the common man.

Vicki B.

I don't trust you people farther than I can LOOK at you and that's not too damn far. As soon as you're finished "addressing" that issue, you'll probably say that people who commit VIOLENT crimes should receive less time for it. Like the guy who shot me, who couldn't get more than 10 damn years for what he did (and he almost KILLED me, actually DID kill me CLINICally speaking) b/c attempted murder doesn't seem to mean a damn thing to the people who've never had someone trying to kill THEM.
It always has to happen to a person before they see ANYthing, and I'm not about to wish it on even my worst enemy - and people here don't qualify as that so I have even LESS interest in wishing it on them.
But I'm filled with frustration at people who decide that for trying to take away every single thing I had, even the air I was breathing, that it's worth no MORE than 10 piddly-ass years. He got all his other time for all the other charges. He shot another person, the teller, and he had weapons infractions. He was also on Probation when he committed the crime. He robbed a bank too, and they were more upset about THAT than they were at what he'd done to the people. It seemed like it, anyway.
That's total BS and there's no such THING as a punishment that will fit a violent crime when that incident does as much damage as it did to me. It's life-long and every day for the rest of my existence. That's NOT a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's the truth of how it's been for the first 20 years after the gunshot wound.
The stupid Flight Paramedic kept telling me to fight for my life whenever I went into a code. He would shake me (or so it seemed) and tell me to stay with them, and I kept trying to listen to him.
If I'd known then what I would come back to and how it would look over 20 years later, I would have chosen to stay in that "better place" that everyone's always calling it when someone you loved dies a horrible death.
But I was definitely "somewhere else" (whether it was truly better on a grand scale is arguable) but it was definitely "better" in the short term and I would have stayed there over coming back to this.
Nobody in that place called me a moocher and hated me for having a disability that someone else GAVE to me. There were no judges in that place, but there was nobody period and I found that the most terrifying part of it. So I kept listening to the medic and trying to come back.

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