Despite crime rates going down in the United States, our rates of incarceration continue to increase. Rather than build new prisons, it’s time to take a look at the way we are sentencing to make sure the people we send to prison actually belong there. Oftentimes, they don’t.
The newly-established Prison Population Task Force met recently to discuss Minnesota’s growing prison population — something that is not unique to our state, but is a growing trend in a country that’s home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but makes up 25 percent of its inmates. The United States has 2.2 million people behind bars as of 2015, making us the most incarcerated nation in the world.
There has been some recent good news, however, as the Justice Department announced this week that 6,000 federal inmates will be released early in an effort to reduce overcrowding and relieve non-violent drug offenders of the harsh sentences they’ve received over the past three decades. This is a promising development, but it’s important to remember the dire necessity of looking at both sentencing reform and the disproportionate demographics that land in federal prison.
While Minnesota’s prison population continues to rise because of penalty increases in the areas of DWIs and domestic violence, one fact remains: there are too many people who occupy our prisons due to lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes, and they simply should not be there. We know the War on Drugs, which has landed so many in prison, has failed. We know that African American and Latino males are incarcerated at extremely higher rates than their white counterparts for the same crimes. We know that for many of these people, the crimes they committed were the result of systemic poverty; a lack of resources and oftentimes hope; and a system that has failed them. We know that something desperately needs to change, and it needs to happen sooner than later.
Instead of building more prisons as the Prison Population Task Force has suggested, perhaps we should look at sentencing reform. Perhaps we should acknowledge that non-violent offenders have served their time — often too much time — and should have the ability to access programs that reintegrate them with society, that reduce recidivism. The fact of the matter is that our criminal justice system is broken, and it’s time that we fix the problem rather than augment it.
I recently watched a VICE News special report titled “Fixing the System,” which took a look at mass incarceration in the U.S. and included an exclusive interview with President Obama, the first sitting Commander in Chief to visit a federal prison. I knew going into viewing the documentary that the information I’d receive would be distressing; I just didn’t realize how troublesome it would actually be. For example, violent crime continues to decrease, but there has been a 700 percent increase in people behind bars since 1970, with hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated for non-violent offenses. The result: a grossly overpopulated prison system that costs nearly $80 billion a year — just to keep people behind bars.
The documentary presents staggering statistics: One in 17 white men will go to prison in their lifetime, compared with one in three black men. This has nothing to do with excessive crime in black communities and everything to do with bias in the system. As Sergeant Michael Wood, an 11-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, noted:
“Those [16- to 24-year-old black males] were the ones we were supposed to be focusing on by our entire mantra of what is effective criminal justice. When we had the uprising [following the death of Freddie Gray], it was the straw that broke the camel’s back that makes people say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Whites and blacks have been known to carry narcotics at the exact same rate, so if we went around riling through pockets whenever we wanted in a white neighborhood, I’m sure we’d find a lot of things. But we don’t do that.”
Nearly 75 percent of people who end up in federal prison for drug offenses are either black or Hispanic. Add to that the mandatory minimum sentences assigned by Congress, and you’ve got widespread injustice. According to Federal Judge John Gleeson, “Seven percent of federal drug trafficking defendants are managers or kingpins, while the remaining 93 percent are low-level dealers — but the severity Congress intended for that top seven percent is being spread across our docket.”
What does this mean? It means that we often sentence non-violent drug offenders in a one-size-fits-all manner, and that’s unacceptable. It means that non-violent offenders often serve longer sentences than the violent ones. It means that communities of color have unfairly been thrust into a system that’s beyond their control.
As President Obama said in the interview: “The system, every study has shown, is biased somewhere institutionally in such a way where an African American youth is more likely to be suspended from school than a white youth for engaging in the same disruptive behavior. More likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be prosecuted aggressively, more likely to get a stiffer sentence. The system tilts in a direction that is unjust. And particularly when you think about nonviolent drug offenses. This is an area where the statistics are so skewed, you have to question whether we have become numb to the costs that it has on these communities, whether we think it’s somehow normal for black youth or Latino youth to be going through the system in this way. It’s not normal.”
So where do we go from here? I don’t know the exact answer, but I can tell you that we should not take the “quick-fix, build more prisons” approach. Non-violent crime sentencing reform is necessary in our criminal justice system, and measures must be taken to ensure this trend of mass incarceration — predominately in black and Hispanic communities — is stopped in its tracks. I encourage everyone with access to YouTube to view the “Vice Special Report: Fixing the System” documentary at http://bit.ly/FixTheSystem.
We know the real problem. Now let’s find a real solution.
State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-59) represents neighborhoods in North and downtown Minneapolis.