Sentencing Reform Catches Wind

February 25, 2016

Sentencing Reform Catches Wind

Since 1980, the prison population in the United States has more than quadrupled. To put that in perspective, 1 out of every 100 adults is locked up. With over 2,000,000 people incarcerated, the United States has a mass incarceration rate like no other.

Last year, the awareness of the need for sentencing reform caught wind and began gaining support like never before. In July of 2015, President Obama visited a prison in El Reno, Oklahoma and spoke with inmates in a public push for sentencing reform. During his press conference, President Obama noted, “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those kinds of mistakes.”

President Obama noted that mostly drug offenses are responsible for doubling the country’s incarceration rate since the 1980s. “The United States accounts for 5% percent of the world’s population, and yet we account for 25% of the world’s inmates.” President Obama points out that we sometimes take it for granted that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. “It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal, is teenagers doing stupid things.”

In a sit down interview with the president, Vice Media CEO, Shane Smith points out how there are, “more federal incarcerations for drug offenses than there are for homicide, aggravated assault, kidnapping, robbery, weapons, immigrations, arson, sex offenses, extortion, bribery etc. combined.” Responding as to how this increase in mass incarceration happened, President Obama states, “I think there was a lot of fear. During the war on drugs, the crack epidemic became a bipartisan cause to get tough on crime.”

The war on drugs began in the 1980s and grew in ferocity in the 1990s. To fight drug use, Ronald Reagan passed tough mandatory minimum drug penalties, and his successor George H.W. Bush enforced even harsher laws. By 1994, 34 states had instated mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug convictions.

In the summer of 2015, President Obama granted clemency to 44 non-violent offenders, the most since the 1960s. Later that year, he commuted sentences for 96 more. All of the prisoners pardoned were convicted with mandatory minimums in place.

One prisoner with a mandatory minimum sentence who is currently serving time in Oklahoma is Kevin Ott, whose story was told in “The House I Live In” (2012). Kevin is serving a sentence for trafficking methamphetamines. Kevin has a life-without-parole sentence for selling 3 ounces of methamphetamine in a non-violent case. Without a retroactive change in mandatory minimum sentencing laws, Kevin will never have the chance to correct his mistake in a free world.

Even judges disagree with mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug charges. Judge Paul Cossell points out how the system forced him to give such harsh sentence to a first-time offender Weldon Angelos. “It ties the judges hands…Mandatory minimums can be used to send a message, but at some point the message gets lost. If he had been an airplane hijacker, he would have gotten 25 years in prison. If he’d been a terrorist, he would’ve gotten 20 years in prison. If he was a child rapist, he would’ve gotten 11 years in prison, and now I’m supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? I mean, that’s not right.”

In a proud show of bipartisan collaboration, Senator Chuck Grassley and a group of senators held a press conference on Oct. 1, 2015 to announce their agreement on a criminal justice reform bill that would address mandatory minimum sentencing. S.2123 is known as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. In a press conference for it’s introduction, Senator Grassley begins, “This is truly a landmark piece of legislation. It’s the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation. It’s the product of a very thoughtful, bi-partisan deliberation by the congress.”

The United States House and Senate both have bills regarding sentencing reform. Both the bills are currently past committee pending action on the house and senate floor. Read the summary of the bill and a list of cosponsors here.

This year promises to bring major advances in criminal justice reform, and it’s an exciting time to be a part of such tremendous progress in our national justice system.