Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it's ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we've spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.

U.S. Department of Justice Shows Support for Sentencing Reform

It's a big deal when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) openly requests sentencing reform. That happened this week, when to the DOJ sent a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) indicating its support for reducing sentences for drug and other offenses, as well as finding alternatives to prison for less serious crimes.

Disappointingly, the letter does not outline in specific terms what drug-offense sentencing reforms it recommends. But the language is encouraging nonetheless, especially given the source.

What's the USSC? It's a government agency that sets the federal sentencing guidelines, a set of sentencing ranges for federal offenses that judges are not required to follow, but which nonetheless exerts a lot of influence over sentencing decisions. Each year, the commission reviews the guidelines, and the DOJ is required to submit a report assessing the guidelines and recommending changes.

The letter begins by cataloguing the precipitous rise in the federal prison population, and then by acknowledging that both budgetary constraints and new evidence about what's effective in corrections and sentencing. The DOJ identifies several states that recently reduced sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Perhaps the most noteworthy part of the letter from this blog's perspective comes on page 9. The DOJ asks the USSC for "statutory and guideline drug penalties;" "providing alternatives or reduced sentences for non-violent, less serious offenders" and "changes to the statutory minimum penalties in title 21 and changes to the so-called ‘safety valve' exception to mandatory minimum penalties". Moreover, the DOJ goes on to calls for more effective use of prison credits, which prisoners can earn to reduce their time served.

The DOJ openly acknowledges that our use of incarceration is "extraordinary," and that "the goals of eliminating unwarranted sentencing and other criminal justice disparities have not been achieved." Hopefully the department will continue to push the USSC to create more appropriate sentencing ranges for federal crimes.

Read the full letter and USA Today's coverage.

Other Interesting Items from the Past Week

  • North Carolina passed significant sentencing reform that took effect on January of last year. The bill barred technical probation violations from resulting in revocation to prison and reduced sentences for some minor offenses. Early returns are positive, as the bill seems to have accelerated the reduction of the state's prison population, which is now down almost 11 percent since 2009. The reduction allows the state to close prisons—different budgets call for closures of between three and six facilities.
  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Robert "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) introduced H.R. 2656, the Public Safety Enhancement Act of 2013 (PSEA). The bill would allow some federal prisoners to earn credit if they complete certain programs. Read about the bill over at FAMM's blog, SentenceSpeak.
  • Washington, D.C.'s city council will consider a measure that would make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. The ACLU laid bare the racial bias in marijuana possession arrests in a recent report.

Want to know how addicted your state is to incarceration? Check out our new map for updates on recent activity in state legislatures to reduce prison populations, with contextual information about each state.

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