How can we preach to the world about human rights when we are the world’s leader in incarceration? Nearly 1 in 35 Americans is on probation, parole, or incarcerated, many for non-violent drug offenses.
U.S. drug control policy, specifically the adoption of mandatory minimum sentencing, is one of the primary causes of our unsustainable incarceration rates. The misguided efforts of the late 1980’s have created a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes minority drug users, all without addressing the root causes of the problem.
Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist has stated that these mandatory minimum statutes are “perhaps a good example of the law of unintended consequences.” Reforms are desperately needed to direct our efforts toward treatment and not unfairly punitive sentencing.
The steady increase in incarceration rates in the United States is threatening to tear apart the social fabric of our communities. Approximately 2.2 million people currently reside in our nation's prisons or jails, a 500% increase over the last forty years.
Ineffective public policies and unsuccessful attempts to rein in criminal activity have only escalated the problem. The result has been a damaging social trend of hereditary criminality, a perpetual cycle of incarceration and recidivism.
The human element of this problem is too powerful to ignore, too tragic to imagine. It is a civil rights issue, a human rights issue. But for those unmoved by the separation of families, or the disproportionate arrests of young black men, there are also devastating economic repercussions tied to this issue.
The imprisonment of more than 2 million U.S. citizens impacts the economy directly, stripping workforce participation and consumer spending. Long-term effects are also felt with the social stigma of arrest, which creates limited access to employment and credit.
Another significant consequence is the irresolvable strain on budget priorities caused by prison expenditures. The exorbitant costs of incarceration have begun to exhaust federal and state budgets respectively, draining investments in our future.
At the state level, costs for running corrections facilities have roughly tripled in the last three decades, making it the second fastest rising expense after Medicaid.
At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) comprises one-third of the Justice Department’s budget. Federal prison costs are expected to rise to 30 percent of the Department of Justice's budget by 2020. In 1980, Congress appropriated $330 million for the BOP. By 2013, the total appropriation for the BOP reached $6.445 billion.
In a climate of divided government, ideological polarization, and general intransigence, true reform on any major policy platform is seemingly quixotic. However, criminal justice reform has shown considerable promise in our current toxic political environment. Support has been noted from the White House, Justice Department, congressional leadership, and members on both sides of the aisle.
Criminal justice reform seems to be a public policy concern that is ripe for government action. We may be at a tipping point, where the realities of this systemic problem may be too overwhelming to ignore.
America is a country of compassion and second chances, a country that knows the difference between a dangerous criminal and an addict in need. We must find a way to preach treatment over prison, rehabilitation over recidivism.
We must implore this Congress to end a war that has taken more lives than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Wars are won one battle at a time. Withdrawal from the mire of the war on drugs starts with one crucial battle, it starts with sentencing reform.
Garland is a graduate student at American University’s School of Public Affairs, a Capitol Hill intern, and political commentator.