There is no question that the criminal justice system is broken. President Obama made that clear recently in his address to the annual convention of the NAACP in Philadelphia.
“The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” he said. “Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined.
“And it hasn’t always been the case – this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America – half a million people in 1980… Today there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone.”
On his visit to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, Obama said: “A primary driver of this mass incarceration phenomenon is our drug laws – our mandatory minimum sentencing around drug laws. And we have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals.”
He added, “…When we’re looking at nonviolent offenders, most of them growing up in environments in which the drug traffic is common, where many of their family members may have been involved in the drug trade, we have to reconsider whether 20-year, 30-year, life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems.”
Of the 2.2 million people behind bars in 2012, nearly 1.5 million were in state and federal prisons and 744,500 were in local jails. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 38 percent of federal and state prisoners were Black, 35 percent were White and 21 percent were Latino.
How do we reform the criminal justice system?
The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based organization that works for sentencing reform, offering alternatives to incarceration and ending racial disparities, said a number of things can be done to end or reduce mass incarceration.
In its publication titled, “Ending Mass Incarceration: Social Interventions that Work,” the Sentencing Project stated. “Preschool education for at-risk three and four year olds is also an effective prevention strategy…Head Start and other preschool programs produce both short-term and long-term benefits. This includes reduced engagement with the criminal justice system through the age of 27, along with positive school outcomes and reduced need for social services.”
On juvenile justice, the report said, “Research shows that programs prioritizing family interactions are the most successful, probably because they focus on providing skills to the adults who are in the best position to impact the child’s behavior.”
The community also has a vital role to play.
“Studies have shown that organizational participation and informal social control mechanisms can address criminal violence at the neighborhood level,” the report said. “Community participation can help in supervising and monitoring teenage peer groups through social networks that facilitate adult and youth interaction.”
In a July 14 letter to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking member of the committee, a coalition of 60 organizations – including the Sentencing Project, Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Council of Churches, the NAACP, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – called for broad-based criminal justice reform.
“In its 2011 report to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately impact communities of color and that African Americans received relief from mandatory minimum sentences least often, compared with Whites and Hispanics,” the letter noted.
The organizations urged Congress to support reform that:
- Changes current federal law that allows a person with two prior felony convictions to have a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence converted to a mandatory life sentence;
- Allows past criminal records to be sealed and removes the lifetime ban on persons convicted of drug felonies to receive federal benefits such as welfare and food stamps;
- Makes sentencing reductions passed in 2010 retroactive;
- Expands the Bureau of Prisons’ Compassionate Release Program and
- Expands time credited for good behavior.
“We note the importance of supporting initiatives that aim to assist in effective recidivism reduction and re-entry programming as well as provide opportunities for early release for individuals in federal prison,” the groups said. “Ninety-five percent of incarcerated individuals will return to our communities, and in the interest of public safety, we must ensure that they are on a path for successful reintegration back into society while in prison and upon their release. It is a smart investment to implement expanded re-entry programming, given that evidence-based programs, job-training, and education can reduce recidivism and lead to better outcomes for individuals returning to their families and neighborhoods.”
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and BlackPressUSA.com.