Law Office of Tim Powers
An ACLU Blog comments on the problem of overincarceration in American prisons.
Vanita Gupta, Center for Justice &
Ezekiel Edwards, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project at 2:51pm
This piece was
originally posted as a part of the
Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not
being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug
War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
Presidential election season is prime time for predictions. One sure bet
is this: neither candidate is likely to make criminal justice a stump
issue. But another sure bet — the candidates' laser focus on
the economy — should make a discussion of criminal justice reform,
and its potential to reduce fiscal waste, unavoidable.
Rarely has the intersection of politics and criminal justice produced sensible
responses to crime or rational conversations about our criminal justice
system. Instead, politicians spar about who is "tougher or softer
on crime." See
Willie Horton and the 1988 election. Since President Richard Nixon first announced the "War
on Drugs" 40 years ago, the United States has adopted "tough
on crime" policies driven all too often by political and emotional
considerations at the expense of data-driven practices and programs that
would have been far less costly and far more effective at promoting the
health, safety and productivity of families and communities across the
country. As a result, between 1970 and 2010 the number of people incarcerated
in this country
grew by 700 percent. This massive explosion in our prison population has caused
federal and state governments to dramatically escalate their spending
on corrections. States have been spending an ever-increasing percentage
of their budgets on prison-related expenses, cutting into scarce taxpayer
dollars while coming at a great expense. By 2007,
states spent more than $44 billion on incarceration — a 127 percent jump from 1987.
The effects? Mass incarceration has had a particularly devastating effect
on communities of color. One
in every nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated, and
one in three black men, and
one in six Latino men, will spend some part of their lives in prison. After
40 million arrests and
$1 trillion spent, drugs remain readily available, overall usage rates in America haven't
declined, global consumption of opiates, cocaine, and cannabis increased
between 1998 and 2008, and drug-related violence has only increased in
many Latin American countries. No other state-sponsored program has a
1/3 to 2/3 failure rate as exemplified by recidivism rates and yet been
perpetuated by the government with such gusto. Polls show the public agrees:
in a survey of more than 1,000 Americans,
66 percent think the War on Drugs has been a failure.
Today, however, as states struggle with budget shortfalls of historic proportions,
a growing number of them are rethinking their decades-long obsession with
incarceration. For the first time in forty years,
conservative leaders and
think tanksare talking about taking smarter, rather than tougher, approaches to crime,
and touting reform legislation that promotes alternatives to incarceration
and expansion of parole eligibility for a host of offenses. Recent bipartisan
reform efforts in several states are demonstrating that there are alternatives
to mass incarceration that keep communities safe and that make much more
sense for taxpayers in these cash-strapped times:
Depopulated its prisons by 20 percent from 1999 to 2009 as a result of reform of the state's
draconian Rockefeller drug laws, expansion of "alternative to incarceration"
programs including the diversion of more drug offenders to treatment and
drug courts, and applied "merit time" credits to speed up parole
consideration. In FY11, New York prison closures
saved tax payers72 million.
Depopulated its prisons by 12 percent by eliminating most mandatory minimum sentences for drug
a statewide initiativeto reduce parole revocations and enhance employment, housing and treatment
services for people leaving prison.
Texas: Since 2003, the
Texas Legislature has passed a number of bills to prevent further growth of its prison population by
increasing the use of probation for nonviolent offenses, and by providing increased funding
for nonviolent offenders to attend residential and nonresidential treatment programs.
Reformed its "truth in sentencing" law requiring offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences before becoming
eligible for parole to allow nonviolent offenders to be parole-eligible
after having served 25 percent of their sentences.
Crimes rates have remained down in all of these states. If states as diverse
as Texas, New York, Mississippi, Michigan, and
New Jersey can engage in rational criminal justice reform, other states can follow
suit and the federal government can take note.
Obama and Romney should support smart, data-driven legislative and administrative
reforms that help states and the federal government reduce their incarcerated
populations and corrections budgets, while keeping our communities safe.
These reforms will end wasteful spending and reform ineffective government
policies, and that should be something all presidential candidates can
come together on. These reforms include "front-end" reforms
that focus on reducing the number of people entering jails and prisons,
as well as reintroducing proportionality and judicial discretion into
sentencing; and "back-end" reforms that increase the number
of people exiting and staying out of prison. Below are just
a sampling of smart reforms:
Reduce Penalties for Drug Offenses. A quarter of the people in state and federal prisons are incarcerated for
drug offenses. In 2009 alone nearly 1.7 million people
were arrested in the U.S. for nonviolent drug charges. Marijuana arrests comprise more
than half of all drug arrests in the United States, and nearly 90 percent
of those are charges of possession only. Arrest and incarceration are
not a proper solution to drug offenses; prison does not treat addiction
and often makes individuals more prone to drug use.
Decriminalize/"Defelonize" Drug Possession. States should decriminalize simple possession of all drugs, particularly
marijuana, and for small amounts of other drugs.
Eliminate Mandatory Minimum Sentences. These laws often require disproportionate mandatory minimum prison sentence
lengths for offenses, particularly drug offenses. Those committing drug
offenses often pose very little risk to public safety and incarcerating
them prevents them from receiving treatment and rehabilitation, which
would enable them to return to society.
Use Non-Prison Alternatives for Technical Parole and Probation Violations. Over one-third of prison admissions in this country are for individuals
who have committed technical parole and probation violations — such
as missing a parole meeting or failing to perform community service —
not because they committed new crimes. States should implement non-prison
alternatives for technical parole and probation violations and can provide
performance-based financial incentives to counties to encourage reductions
in revocations due to violations.
Presidential candidates love to talk about stopping wasteful spending and
saving the economy. The need for financial austerity has created
an unprecedented opening for advocates to promote fair and more effective
criminal justice policies that protect public safety, reduce recidivism,
keep communities intact, and move away from our overreliance on incarceration,
all while saving taxpayer dollars. It's time to stop gambling away
taxpayer dollars on the failed drug war and start implementing rational,
evidence-based, cost-effective, humane criminal justice policies.
If you are seeking aggressive criminal representation by an experienced
criminal defense attorney for your Denton County criminal case or arrest
in Denton County, contact the offices of Tim Powers today. There is no
charge or obligation for the initial consultation. 940.580.2899.
*Tim Powers is an attorney licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court
of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For
legal advice about any specific legal question you should directly consult