“Thirty years ago, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America. Today, there are 2.2 million. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep people locked up,” said President Obama today in his weekly radio address.
But even as the President talks about a need for “meaningful criminal justice reform” it appears the weakest bill offered will pass Congress. This week the Senate will have a hearing on The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bill Democrats had to beg Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to join. With Grassley involved, the bill includes two new mandatory minimum penalties. Also: With Grassley involved, everyone is so focused on how hard it was to get Grassley involved that no one appears to be focused on the the bill’s content or impact on mass incarceration.
Would the bill reduce incarceration? If so, by how much? How much money does it save? Does it include safety valves defendants are unlikely to be impacted by because they’ve already pled out? No one appears to know the answer. And with advocates and members of Congress “just happy” to “get something done” after 25 years of fighting Senators like Chuck Grassley, no one would appear to be looking for the answers. Grassley, who supported the Clinton Crime Bill back in 1994, just can’t let go of mandatory minimums, the biggest driver of mass incarceration.
“The prison problem may not be drug laws or mandatory minimums but instead increasingly aggressive prosecutors, noted conservavtive Pat Nolan recently. Right: Prosecutors aggressively using mandatory minimums.
“Democrats and Republicans came together in the Senate to introduce a bill – one that would reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders,” said the President during his radio address. Actually the Senate bill adds two new mandatory minimum penalties. It would reduce mandatory minimums for non violent drug offenders because it applies the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively. But with 6,000 people (and more to come) set to be released from federal prison because a previous ruling from the sentencing commission, how many more people does the bill have the capacity to help?
The SAFE Justice Act, which was introduced during the summer by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), “limits the application of federal mandatory minimum drug sentences to the highest-level offenders,” and “protects the public by using state-tested, evidence-based practices that are reducing crime” according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). The bill resulted from testimony during a House task force on over-criminalization that featured ideas from many state officials who reduced incarceration.
“Over the next few weeks, I’ll travel the country to highlight some of the Americans who are doing their part to fix our criminal justice system. I’ll visit a community battling prescription drug and heroin abuse. I’ll speak with leaders from law enforcement who are determined to lower the crime rate and the incarceration rate, and with police chiefs who have dedicated their careers to keeping our streets and officers safe,” the President said today.
Hopefully he’ll also travel to a statistician or criminologist who can tell him which bill has the most const savings and lowers incarceration better.
In 1980, the number of those in federal prison was about 24,000. In December 2013 there were 216,000 federal prisoners. There are over 2.2. million people behind bars federal and state as the U.S. continues to lead the world in locking people up.