In the 1980s and 90s, "tough-on-crime" legislators held enough sway to pass draconian sentencing schemes that exponentially increased the number of Americans behind bars — mostly by sentencing nonviolent drug offenders to lengthy terms once reserved only for violent criminals. However, despite an 1,100 percent increase of drug offenders in prisons and jails over the last 25 years, the use of illegal drugs has remained steady. (Not to mention that drug-related harm has increased dramatically, as overdose deaths more than tripled from 1990 to 2005.)
Today, the public's attitudes about drugs have shifted. In 1989, when a Gallup poll posed the question, "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" Twenty-six percent of respondents answered "Drugs; drug abuse." From 2004-2007, only 1 percent gave the same answer. Meanwhile, according to a Zogby poll released yesterday, 76 percent of Americans believe the "War on Drugs" is failing.
But we're still stuck with the same cruel and counterproductive policies. Unfortunately, too few leaders have had the political courage to take on the task of dismantling the vast prison-industrial complex that destroys millions of lives and pilfers hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars every year. It's up to us to tell them how and why it is not only possible, but necessary.
A few recent reports by the ACLU's allies offer valuable resources for those of us working for human rights in our nation's criminal justice system:
Correcting Course, a new report by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), describes how Congress repealed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in 1970, yet weren't punished at the ballot box. It also includes comprehensive strategies for how Congress can repeal these ineffective laws today.
FAMM concurrently released a new poll finding that not only do a large majority of Americans oppose mandatory minimums, but that they will vote for candidates who would eliminate them for nonviolent crimes. The numbers speak volumes about the public's appetite for sentencing reform:
- 78 percent of Americans agree that courts — not Congress — should determine an individual's prison sentence
- 59 percent oppose mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders
- 57 percent said they would likely vote for a candidate for Congress who would eliminate all mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes
- The Justice Policy's Institute's sweeping new report, Moving Target: A Decade of Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex, examines the relationship between government, private interests and the use of imprisonment in the U.S.. The report describes the vast expansion of the prison-industrial complex over the past decade, its failure as an economic development tool, and insightfully analyzes the criminalization of drug use, poverty, mental illness, and immigration. It also discusses the use of specialized police forces to target specific crimes and populations, the public's growing support for police accountability, and the militarization of routine police work, which has been "largely driven by the drug war" (As cited in the report, there are more than 45,000 paramilitary "SWAT" deployments each year in the U.S. — most commonly to serve drug warrants — an increase of 1,400 percent over just the past 20 years.)
The report also describes the societal effects of disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration of African-Americans — such as the fact that even though white youth are more likely than African-Americans to report selling drugs, African-American youth are arrested for drug offenses at nearly twice the rate of white youth.
Earlier last month, JPI also released a brief report demonstrating that in 2007 "areas with lower incarceration rates experienced greater crime reductions."
- Meanwhile, the Sentencing Project has just published a new edition of Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, a comprehensive manual for criminal justice practitioners, policymakers, and community organizations that seek to develop effective solutions to address and reduce disparities. The manual identifies the most common causes of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, how disparities manifest at key points in the justice system, and provides strategies for addressing disparities at the law enforcement, pretrial, prosecution, sentencing, probation, and parole stages.
We're at a moment in sentencing history that presents a tremendous opportunity for systemic change. At the federal level, the Supreme Court's decisions in Kimbrough and Gall and the U.S. Sentencing Commission's decision to retroactively apply the reduction in crack cocaine sentencing guidelines signals a return to judicial discretion in federal sentencing. In addition, the confluence of ballooning state prison populations, budget shortfalls, and a newfound political willingness to be "smart-on-crime" presents unprecedented opportunities to halt the ever-increasing prison population. Overall, between 2004 and 2007, 22 states enacted legislative reforms to reduce their prison population by modifying sentencing or parole and probation schemes.
While encouraging, these developments have hardly made a dent in our nation's increasing prison population. At this period in history while we're painfully aware of the lost opportunity costs of having over seven million Americans living under the control of the criminal justice system, let's make sure these opportunities to undo the largest prison build-up in the history of the world aren't lost.