Time to end the needless social harm our justice system inflicts

08/16/2013 1:36 PM

08/20/2013 6:24 PM

America is facing up to one of its greatest failures: our grossly unfair criminal justice system.

In and out of the public eye, corrections officials, legislatures and law enforcement authorities have been inching toward reforming it.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced a historic about-face on how low-level, nonviolent drug crimes will be prosecuted; in particular, he instructed U.S. attorneys to avoid bringing charges against certain offenders that would trigger severe federal mandatory sentencing. If allowed to go forward, Holder’s gambit could lead to significant reductions in the number of people locked up in America.

The U.S. holds the distinction of the world’s highest incarceration rate. One in every 100 adults — 2.3 million people — was behind bars in 2010, according to the Pew Center on the States.

Holder’s announcement is the obvious follow-up to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. The legislation sought to correct the inequities between the sentencing of people caught with crack cocaine and those convicted of crimes related to powdered coke. Five grams of crack, the form of cocaine more likely to be in the possession of African-Americans, carried the same obligatory sentence as that triggered by 500 grams of powder, the preference for many white people.

An ongoing issue is whether the legislation will apply retroactively, something that both Congress and the courts are weighing.

A July report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that about half the states have taken significant steps in recent years to reduce the size of their prison populations, thereby cutting costs to taxpayers. Reforms such as alternative sentencing and lower mandatory sentences for some crimes all played a role.

Also this summer, the Federal Communications Commission voted to lower interstate prison phone rates. This change helps the families of more than 2 million inmates who often paid predatory rates when their incarcerated loved ones called them. The decision was more than 10 years in the making and will greatly affect the ability of families to stay in touch, crucial for reducing recidivism.

While these changes are encouraging, reshaping America’s prisons and our punitive mentality will not be easy. What is the human cost of our penchant for revenge, our emphasis on punishment without much attention to the equal need for rehabilitation? Just consider the newest Muppet introduced by the Sesame Workshop. “Alex,” whose story appears online only, is a character whose father is serving time.

Alex was introduced for a good reason. One in 28 children has a parent who is imprisoned. More than half of America’s prisoners are mothers and fathers with a child under the age of 18. And two-thirds of those parents are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

Consider that deeply. It’s the equivalent of nearly one child from every elementary classroom in America. Twenty-five years ago, the number was 1 in 125.

Are people really that much more criminally minded than in the past? Or did America decide that locking people up would be more expedient than providing addiction treatment and mental health care and increasing the supervision of those on parole?

It’s not a tough question. And after years of policy that financed the war on drugs, more thoughtful considerations are finally gaining traction.

The fact that violent crime rates are at near generational lows helps. Cutting some sentences, providing more support for low-level offenders, can save on the high cost of prisons for taxpayers, without compromising public safety.

And don’t tell me that this is being “soft on crime.” Those involved in violent and repeat offenses will still have the book thrown at them.

The more the public learns about how mandatory sentencing needlessly degrades nonviolent drug offenders and harms their families, the sooner our legislators will restore sanity and mercy to the criminal justice system. So bravo to Netflix for creating the new series “Orange is the New Black.” Yes, it’s another “insider’s view” of life behind bars, a genre we can’t get enough of. It conveys the experiences of an educated, well-to-do woman used as a pawn in the drug trade, based on a memoir.

Kudos also to Piper Kerman, the memoir’s author and the one who experienced 11 months in a low-security women’s prison for a drug crime, who is also speaking out about the children of inmates.

She’s using her newfound celebrity to promote alternative, in-home sentencing for some mothers with small children. As she wrote in The New York Times, this program would not only save money but also “rehabilitate women (and) keep families together — which we know is an effective way to reduce crime and to stop a cycle that can condemn entire families to the penal system.”

And that, more than ever, needs to be our priority.

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