The Land of the Free? Maybe Not.

It’s time to rethink America’s rate of incarceration

By BY MARK RANKIN Published: April 14, 2013
– The United States does not lead the world in health care or education. It does, however, outpace everyone in putting its citizens in prison. We have the highest per-capita incarceration rate on the planet — more than twice that of Iran and up to five times that of many Western nations. No country incarcerates its citizens more frequently than, or for as long as, America. “Well over two million people are currently behind bars in this country,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said recently. “As a nation, we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts.” Holder cited chilling statistics about the effects on American families, particularly in the African-American communities. In the “Land of the Free,” one in 28 children has a parent in prison. For African-American children, that ratio is about one in nine. Our mass incarceration is rooted in the popularity of mandatory minimum sentences, statutes that deprive judges of the discretion to distinguish between a defendant who deserves a long prison sentence and one who does not. Since the 1980s there has been a tug-of-war between Congress and the judiciary over which branch is better suited to make sentencing decisions, with Congress seemingly obsessed with passing tougher sentencing laws that require lengthy mandatory prison terms. The result has been a mixed bag. There is no doubt that mandatory minimum sentences have led to the incarceration of dangerous criminals, who were unable to commit further crimes. But there also is no question that mandatory sentencing schemes have resulted in first-time non-violent offenders being locked up for years, or even decades or life. A majority of those incarcerated individuals are young males, perpetuating the cycle of children growing up without the guidance of father figures. Meanwhile, the cost of incarcerating all these people is staggering. It costs about $28,000 per year to keep an inmate in federal prison, so locking up a non-violent drug offender for a decade may cost taxpayers more than $250,000. In 2009 alone, local, state and federal governments spent nearly $83 billion keeping people locked up in jails and prisons. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., have introduced legislation designed to restore judicial discretion in federal sentencing and reduce the number of non-violent offenders being incarcerated for long periods. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (JSVA) would apply to all federal crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences. In such cases, the judge would be permitted to sentence below the mandatory term set by Congress if that minimum term is inconsistent with sentencing goals such as deterrence, punishment, and the specific characteristics of the crime and offender. The JSVA would not require a judge to sentence below a mandated minimum, and it would permit federal prosecutors to appeal sentences they believe to be too lenient. To understand the importance of this legislation, consider some telling statistics. More than half of all federal drug offenders have little or no criminal history. Almost 85 percent did not possess or use a weapon. And only about 6 percent were considered to be leaders, managers or supervisors of others. In other words, most federal drug offenders are non-violent, unarmed, lower-level criminals with little criminal history. Yet, less than a quarter of these same defendants qualify for the current “safety valve” relief that permits a judge to sentence below a mandatory minimum. The Justice Safety Valve Act would not help non-violent offenders already serving lengthy prison terms. But it is not too late to ensure that future defendants receive punishment that fits the crime and their specific characteristics. It is not too late to ensure that, while families and the government struggle to survive on reduced budgets, we do not continue to waste taxpayer dollars locking up non-violent criminals for long periods of time. Congress should pass the JSVA, and President Obama should sign it into law. It is never too late to do the right thing.

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Ray Lopez has practiced since 1990, with prior experience as a Hillsborough County assistant State attorney and lawyer for the Tampa Police Department. He handles all criminal charges, from traffic violations and misdemeanors to serious felonies and federal drug charges. He practices in all state and federal courts of the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida, as well as criminal appeals, juvenile court, administrative hearings, and civil forfeiture proceedings.

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