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 our 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.
Only a minority of countries even allow life without parole sentences, and those that do mostly reserve the punishment for the most serious offenses. By contrast, the U.S. sentences many people to life without parole for nonviolent crimes, including drug offenses. John Tierney from the New York Times describes one such prisoner, Stephanie George, and looks more broadly at the severity of American punishment. In addition, Mr. Tierney provided four other profiles of prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent offenses.
25 years ago, Michael Morton was convicted of his wife’s murder. After fighting to have DNA evidence reviewed for over a decade, he was exonerated this year, and his prosecutor is now under investigation for withholding exculpatory evidence during Mr. Morton’s trial. In an extensive two-part feature (Part Two here), Texas Monthly tells the entire heartbreaking story of how an innocent man lost half his life and his family to a false conviction. “I thank God this wasn’t a capital case,” said Mr. Morton upon his release. Also see Grits for Breakfast’s interview with the article’s author, Pam Colloff.
In 2005, Manuel Velez was convicted of murder and sentenced to death on the basis of flawed forensic testimony. This week, a Brownsville District Court Judge held an evidentiary hearing on the new evidence of Mr. Velez’s innocence, as well as the reasons his incompetent trial attorney failed to produce this evidence at trial. You can read coverage of that hearing in three parts, here, here, and here.
The Sentencing Project recently released a report documenting this year’s prison closures. In 2012, at least six states have closed 20 prison institutions or are contemplating doing so, potentially reducing prison capacity by over 14,100 beds and resulting in an estimated $337 million in savings.
The Urban Institute also released a report this week, in which it describes the main growth drivers of the federal prison population, half of whom are drug offenders. Front-end decisions about who goes to prison and for how long have the greatest impact, suggesting that reductions in sentence lengths—particularly for drug offenders—can most directly contain future growth. To add context to this report, you should also check out the Government Accountability Office’s September report on federal prison overcrowding here.