NATION OF CHANGE
10 Ways to Reduce our Out-of-Control Prison Population
By Christopher Petrella
As someone who writes and organizes around issues of imprisonment and detention my work is often met with a certain type of resignation. Though many politically-conscious individuals are quick to lament our nation’s chart-topping incarceration rates, they’re justifiably overwhelmed by the complexity and magnitude of our so-called justice system.
Many simply don’t know where or how to begin tackling the most salient, silent problem in the United States today. The following list represents a clear set of strategies for reducing our 2,300,000+ prison population without compromising public safety. 1 . Replace mandatory sentencing laws with more flexible and individualized sentencing guidelines. By 1983 forty-nine state legislatures had enacted mandatory sentencing statutes and in 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which, though, well intentioned, established 5- and 10-year mandatory sentences for drug importation and distribution. Two years later President Reagan signed the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act granting the federal government authority to penalize all conspirators in drug-related crimes regardless of their role. Mandatory sentencing laws like these limit judicial jurisdiction by preventing sentencing judges from considering a full range of mitigating factors in a defendant’s profile, including the defendant’s role in the offense or likelihood of committing a future infraction. 2 . Strategically reduce “three-strikes” laws for non-violent offenders. Although twenty-six states have passed “three-strikes” laws for violent offenders since 1993, California’s 1994 “three strikes” ruling punishes minor, non-violent crimes with the penalty of twenty-five years to life.
Nearly 4,000 prisoners in the state of California are now serving life sentences for a third strike offense that was neither violent nor serious.
This figure represents more than 40 percent of California’s 8,500 third-strike offenders.
This November, California voters will have a chance to revise the “three strikes” law through a ballot-measure—Proposition 36— which, if passed, will eliminate life sentences for offenders whose third strike is neither serious nor violent. 3 . Relax Truth-in-Sentencing thresholds Today, over thirty-five states require offenders to serve 85 percent of their prison sentence regardless of their potential fitness for early release. This is excessive and arbitrary. Federal Truth in Sentencing guidelines emerged in the mid-nineties as a way to incentivize tougher crime policies on a state-by-state basis. States that resisted the 85 percent standard became ineligible from receiving federal block grants authorized by the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. 4 . Organize against prison gerrymandering to ensure that low-income communities—and particularly communities of color—receive a fair portion of federal aid. The method by which the Census Bureau counts individuals in prison is problematic. It leads to a significant distortion of representation at local and state levels and results in an imprecise picture of community populations for funding and electoral purposes. The Bureau currently tabulates prisoners as residents of the towns where they are incarcerated. According to the Sentencing Project, however, states can correct the Census data “by creating a special state-level census that collects the home addresses of people in prison and then adjusts the U.S. Census counts prior to redistricting.” California, Delaware, Maryland, and New York have already adopted this important practice. 5 . Make full employment a domestic policy goal. In his 2009 book entitled Punishing the Poor, U.C. Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant demonstrates that 60 percent of those incarcerated over the last ten years were living at or below 50 percent of the poverty line at the time of their arrest. Wacquant further argues that roughly 70 percent of those sentenced over the last ten years were unemployed at the time of their arrest. The message is clear: unemployment in the formal labor market substantially increases one’s risk of imprisonment. In 1978 Congress passed the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (Humphrey-Hawkins Act) which explicitly affirmed the goals of full employment, growth in production, and a balanced budget. Unfortunately, the plan was abandoned shortly after it was signed into law. Today, however, a similar legislative opportunity exists to work toward full employment. Senator John Conyers, Jr. (D- MI) has recently drafted a piece of legislation– H.R. 870: Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act—aimed at establishing the National Full Employment Trust Fund to create full employment opportunities for the unemployed and the marginally attached. 6 . Eliminate the use of for-profit, private prison companies. By definition, for-profit, private-prison firms rely on steadily increasing incarceration rates for their long-term survival. For instance, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit, private prison owner and operator, admitted in its 2010 Annual Report that its “growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and accept
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