Sentencing Reform: Weeding Through the Issues

There are a few key values that America would define itself by, and few are better known than “liberty and justice for all”. It’s how this nation views itself and the image it tries to project to the rest of the world.

But the facts don’t support that mantra.

With more than two million people incarcerated at any time, the United States has the highest prison population in the world. China, the runner-up and a nation with several times our population, only imprisons about 1.5 million people.

Those numbers explain why calls for sentencing reform have become so popular. But how would that policy work in practice, and what are the arguments in favor of reform?

To illustrate the issue, let’s take a look at how we handle incarceration, who is being imprisoned, and for what offenses.

What’s Wrong With How We Handle Crime

We’ve established that we have both the highest prison population and incarceration rate in the world. Those numbers would be enough to justify a serious conversation about how we handle crime. But a more dire point is what crimes individuals are locked up for and who those inmates are.

Tough-on-crime rhetoric likes to advance the idea that all criminals are violent offenders, the worst of the worst. In reality, a full half of people serving time in federal prison are in for drug crimes. And the number of people serving time for drug offenses is eight times higher than it was in 1980. So the trend is accelerating.

So we should already question whether the way we handle sentencing for minor drug offenses is fair or productive. But it gets even worse when we look at the demographic of those serving time.

As a 2020 report by the ACLU shows, Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis-related offense than white Americans. This, despite both groups using cannabis at comparable rates.

So we see a tendency for police and prosecutors to over-pursue offenders of color. And mandatory minimums for drug offenses guarantee many of those individuals will face prison time. Taken together, you wind up with a heavily racialized prison population.

What Sentencing Reform Would Look Like In Practice

Fortunately, much of the information we’ve discussed entered the public discourse over the last few decades. And as a result, new organizations emerge all the time to help push for drug sentencing reform. And it’s these advocates who deserve the pulpit. Especially individuals from the communities most harmed by over-policing and over-prosecution.

A recent interview in the Harvest Blog sat down with several such leaders to learn firsthand what their solutions would look like. They suggest reducing or eliminating penalties for non-violent drug offenses could be a life-changer.

So we see a tendency for police and prosecutors to over-pursue offenders of color. And mandatory minimums for drug offenses ensure many of them will serve prison time. It’s easy to see how you wind up with a racialized prison population.

Making Sentencing Reform and Corrections Cornerstones of Civil Liberty Policy

America prides itself on being the land of the free. But that claim is indefensible while millions of our citizens remain locked up for petty offenses with a history of racialized enforcement.

Sentencing reform needs to become a priority if this country is to live up to the values it extols. To learn more about this and other ongoing efforts to balance the scales of justice, be sure to follow our latest criminal and civil rights news and articles.


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