Drugs

How Congress Can Cut the Federal Prison Population

The scent of criminal justice reform is in the air on Capitol Hill this year. Now, a broad coalition is calling for reforms to be deep and serious.

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The current Congress is already seeing a flurry of bills aimed at reforming various aspects of the federal criminal justice system, and now, a broad coalition of faith, criminal justice reform, and civil and human rights groups is calling for the passage of legislation that will dramatically reduce the size of the federal prison system.

The groups, which include the United Methodist Church, the NAACP, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the Drug Policy Alliance, and dozens of other organizations, this week sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees setting out a statement of principles on what meaningful federal-level criminal justice reform should include.

"We urge you to support and advance criminal justice legislative reforms aimed at meaningfully addressing the primary drivers of dangerous overcrowding, unsustainable costs, and unwarranted racial disparities in the federal prison system," the letter said.

The letter called for Congress to:

§  Restore proportionality to drug sentencing

§  Promote and adequately fund recidivism reduction and reentry programming

§  Make sentencing reductions retroactive

§  Expand BOP’s Compassionate Release Program

§  Expand time credits for good behavior

The federal prison population has expanded nearly ten-fold since the launch of the Reagan-era war on drugs three decades ago. In 1980, there were 22,000 federal prisoners; now, there are 210,000. And the war on drugs is one of the largest drivers of the increase. The number of federal drug prisoners has risen at twice the rate of the overall federal prison population; from fewer than 5,000 in 1980 to just under 100,000 now.

Last year, the federal prison population declined for the first time in 34 years, thanks in part to already enacted sentencing reforms, but the decline is marginal. More substantive reforms will be required to make bigger reductions in the carceral state.

The call comes as both the Obama administration and members of both parties have shown increasing signs of willingness to take on the federal criminal justice behemoth.  Attorney General Holder has called repeatedly for a rollback of mandatory minimum sentencing and other harsh sentencing policies, while even House and Senate Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Reps. Jason Chafetz (R-UT) and Raul Labrador (R-ID) are sponsoring reform bills.

That Republican openness to sentencing reforms even extends to grumpy hard-liners like Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the octogenarian chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I’ve expressed in the committee, maybe even on the floor, concern about inequitable sentencing," he said earlier this year. "White-collar crime has been treated less harshly than blue-collar crime, and it seems to me there’s an opportunity maybe to take care of that inequity."

"It's encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats engaged in seeking constructive solutions to excessive incarceration," said Jeremy Haile, Federal Advocacy Counsel at The Sentencing Project. "To reduce federal prison populations and racial disparities, Congress should take an all-of-the-above approach, addressing excessive sentencing, limitations on programming in federal prisons, and barriers that prevent successful reentry."

"It’s clear that there is a path forward for criminal justice reform in the House and Senate, but lawmakers should ensure that any final bill gets at the root causes of mass incarceration," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager at Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. "It’s important that legislation doesn’t just paper over the cracks."

Maybe there is something after all where Democrats and Republicans can work together. We shall see as the year progresses. 

 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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