Mass incarceration is both a moral and a civil rights issue. In fact, it is one of the most pressing problems of our time.
America has the highest incarceration rate in the world at 724 people per 100,000. In Russia, the rate is 581. The U.S. also tops the world as a nation with the longest prison sentences. Currently, many innocent people are languishing in jails and prisons for crimes not committed and, for the guilty, the punishments do not fit the crime.
Many are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes without the possibility of parole. In its publication, A Living Death – Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses, the American Civil Liberties Union writes:
… across the country, thousands of people are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes as petty as siphoning gasoline from an 18-wheeler, shoplifting three belts, breaking into a parked car and stealing a woman’s bagged lunch, or possessing a bottle cap smeared with heroin residue. In their cruelty and harshness, these sentences defy common sense. They are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish. They offend the principle that all people have the right to be treated with humanity and respect for their inherent dignity1.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for criminal justice system reform. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, in his remarks at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association House of Delegates on August 12, 2013, said:
It’s clear…that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st century challenges. And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast2.
Republican Senator, Rand Paul has been one of the most vociferous voices for changes to the criminal justice system, and continue to push for reforms. In The Libertarian Republic, he writes: “The unfortunate consequence of this type of system is an entire group of people facing almost insurmountable odds of ever rejoining society. The injustices within our system are potentially sentencing an entire generation of those who committed youthful mistakes to a future without the opportunity for rehabilitation.”
In July 2015, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he met with inmates to the El Reno Federal Correction Institution in Oklahoma.
Obama has been an outspoken critic of the use of solitary confinement and repeatedly called on congress to pass legislation shortening or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences. In an NBC news report during his prison visit, he remarked: “We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals, … We have to reconsider whether 20 year, 30 year, life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems.”
After months of negotiations, a bipartisan group of United States senators in 2015 introduced a “comprehensive legislation aimed at recalibrating prison sentences for certain drug offenders, targeting violent criminals, and granting judges greater discretion at sentencing for lower-level drug crimes.”
Reform of the criminal justice system has been long in the waiting but the overpowering influence of entrenched interest is a clog in the wheel of progress.