The United States no longer has the rank of #1 in many categories. We are fourteenth in education, eleventh (when compared to ten other industrialized nations of relatively equal stature) in healthcare, and second in number of citizens who are obese.
One of the United States’ only #1 rankings is in incarceration when compared with other industrialized nations.
In a report to Congress in 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported the following:
Statutes carrying mandatory minimum penalties have increased in number, apply to more offense conduct, require longer terms, and are used more often than they were 20 years ago. These changes have occurred amid other systemic changes to the federal criminal justice system, including expanded federalization of criminal law, increased size and changes in the composition of the federal criminal docket, high rates of imposition of sentences of imprisonment, and increasing average sentence lengths. The changes to mandatory minimum penalties and these co-occurring systemic changes have combined to increase the federal prison population significantly.
For those unfamiliar with the phrase “mandatory minimums,” they are basically “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws that became popular under President Reagan and are usually related to drug offenses.
In recent years, drug related offenses have been on the rise. Data from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) cites a whopping 46% of Americans incarcerated for drug related offenses.
Since mandatory minimums became popular, prison overcrowding and spending have also become significant problems. In my home state of Alabama, prisons are at upwards of 190% capacity, and that number is rising. The National Institute of Corrections noted that Alabama has a incarceration rate of 647 per 100,000, well above the national average of 487 per 100,000. However, high incarceration rates and overcrowding are not limited to Alabama.
In recent years California has also been plagued with excessive overcrowding. Due to overcrowding and the threat of a federal takeover of their prison system, California released almost 3,000 inmates last year.
Based on 2013 numbers, the U.S. prison system (state and federal) is operating at 102.7% capacity. Overcrowding is a key concern, but economically speaking, the U.S. spends roughly $31,286 on average ($39 billion dollars total in 2012), based on a survey of 40 states done by Vera Institute of Justice in 2012.
Most of the 2016 election cycle has focused on immigration, the economy, and ISIS- and for good reason since all the listed topics should be of vital importance to voters in 2016. What many are not discussing, however, is the elephant in the room that is prison reform.
Two 2016 candidates who have been very vocal and active about prison reform are Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Both have sought to reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, set equal punishments for crack and powder cocaine, as well as make other changes to sentencing law in the U.S.
Prison reform may not be the most interesting topic of the 2016 race, but it should be one of the most important.
The U.S. has already made strides towards reducing overcrowded prisons in the form of The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. This law repealed the mandatory minimum for simple possession of cocaine, and also lowered the mandatory minimum quantity triggers ratio for crack and powder cocaine.
The fact of the matter is, prison reform is a bipartisan issue. Senators Paul and Cruz have joined Senator Durbin and other Democrats in favor of the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014-which later became the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015. The bill would abolish a mandatory minimum for controlled substance offenses if certain criteria were met.
Action must be taken to reduce overcrowding as well as spending on our prison system. This is an issue Democrats and Republicans can rally around, no matter who is elected later this year.