In 2016, the American criminal justice system held more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102, federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
America leads the world in the amount of people that are incarcerated. The only other country to have over a million people in prisons is China. And even though the U.S. holds only 5 percent of the world’s population, U.S. prisons has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
It’s no secret that America has a prison problem. Amnesty International, a human rights organization, has published articles of human rights violations inside U.S. prisons. But what are politicians doing about it?
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration increased in sentence and made stricter penalties to help curb the crime rate, which did help drop. However, today’s mass incarceration levels do little to affect the crime rate. Congress has been looking for solutions in order to solve this silent crisis.
In order for Congress to enact any type of criminal justice reform, Democrats and Republicans need to understand what caused an increase in incarceration.
The Atlantic reports that America’s war of drugs is the reason why incarceration has skyrocketed. In order to combat drug distribution in the United States, states and the federal government increased sentencing or harsh punishment for those who are caught for drug-related offenses.
In July of 2015, President Obama visited a federal prison an made the claim that the country has “locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.”
State have already begun to take steps towards reforming prisons. States like Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Oregon have adopted comprehensive reforms that are limiting the size and cost of state prison systems.
The states are taking a “justice reinvestment” approach, which “draws on research into effective practices as well as data about their own systems to craft policies that prioritize prison space for serious, violent offenders and use the savings to strengthen alternatives for lower level offenders.”
Utah is one of the latest states to switch its sentencing and corrections policy. Governor Gary Herbert (R) signed a reform package that converts all first- and second-time drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. It also establishes guidelines to ensure swift responses to probation and parole violations, and helps rehabilitate previous offenders as the exit prisons and return to communities.
The results from these states from when the first state started which was Texas in 2007, to Utah in 2015, show some compelling changes. National crime and incarceration rate have been falling in the last five years. Crime rates have also fallen by 13 percent in the states that have reduced their imprisonment rates.
Its not just states who have begun prison reforms either. In early 2016, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, was introduced into the Senate. The bipartisan bill, is designed to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders, allow deserving federal prisoners to reduce their sentences by doing stints behind bars, and give judges more power when it comes to sentencing discretion.
The bill also introduces juvenile justice reform proposals. It would change how they use solitary confinement on young prisoners and allow nonviolent offenders, who were tried in criminal court to have their records removed, and offer parole eligibility for juveniles who have been sentenced to life, after serving 20 years.
However, this bill has yet to be voted on. The Guardian reports that House speaker, Paul Ryan, has promised to bring the reforms up for a vote but has not scheduled it yet. The Republican party is in support for this bill, along with the Democratic party as well, but Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has not committed to the bill.
For More Information:
Mass Incarceration in the USA
What Can the U.S. do about Mass Incarceration?
Prison Policy Initiative:
Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016
Senate Introduces ‘Gamechanger’ Criminal Justice Reform Bill