New policies perpetuate mass incarceration
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Right after I graduated college something happened to me that has happened to many other Latino men — my brother and I were pulled over by the police in broad daylight. Suddenly there were five police cars surrounding us. My car was turned inside out without reason. The police belligerently questioned me. They asked us, “What gang are you a member of?” I remember it like it was yesterday. This is reality for many men of color, and it shows the inherent bias that exists in our justice system. Policies like those reinstated by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRhode Island announces plan to pay DACA renewal fee for every 'Dreamer' in state Mich. Senate candidate opts for House run instead NAACP sues Trump for ending DACA MORE last week only serve to double down on this bias and make our communities less safe.

The attorney general’s decision directing federal prosecutors to more zealously charge individuals with the most serious crimes possible and increasing the use of mandatory minimum sentences will negatively impact young people, disproportionately impact communities of color and raise taxpayer costs.

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Our nation has come a long way since the misguided criminal justice policies of the 1990s that catapulted us to being the most incarcerated country in the world. I ran for the California State Assembly in the 90s in part because I saw firsthand how bad these policies were for my community. They did not make our streets safer. Instead, they wasted taxpayer dollars, tore apart families and deepened the racial disparities of our prisons.

In my time in the State Assembly and the Los Angeles City Council, I helped pass policies that are smart on crime and focus our public resources on programs that actually reduce crime and recidivism and save taxpayer dollars. Now in Congress, I am proud to be part of a bipartisan group of members of Congress that are working to improve our justice system. Unfortunately, as a senator, Sessions was not a part of that group, and as attorney general, he continues to promote backward-looking policies that do not work.

Over the past few years, the Department of Justice has sought to tailor charges and sentences to achieve better results for all by ensuring that when possible and appropriate, defendants would have a chance to maintain family connections, as well as get the treatment, job training and education needed to reduce recidivism and help individuals successfully return to the community after prison. Sessions’s directive last week prevents prosecutors from assessing the full picture of the case and forces them to instead charge people with harsh federal crimes that carry severe penalties.

The research is clear:  Mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime. All mandatory minimum charges do is add years to someone’s sentence and concentrate public resources on prison beds when these resources could be used more effectively on crime prevention.  In sharp contrast to the attorney general’s directive, Republican governors and Republican legislators in Florida, Ohio and Michigan have repealed mandatory minimum sentences and have reallocated resources to more effective public safety pursuits. As a result of the attorney general’s new directive, more money will be spent on federal prisons, limiting funds for evidence-based crime prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, reentry programs, intervention and prevention programs, and other effective approaches for keeping communities safe.

Young people and children will be hit hard by the attorney general’s new directive. There are 13,000 youth aged 18 to 24 years old in federal prison, often spending most of their formative years incarcerated. In contrast to the attorney general’s directive last week, this year lawmakers in Connecticut, Illinois and Washington state considered proposals that would reduce young adults’ justice system involvement and sentence lengths. Sessions’s directive will mean that more young adults will face longer sentences and fewer opportunities for a second chance upon reentry.

Additionally, children and families are negatively impacted when a child’s parent is sentenced for many years to federal prisons hundreds of miles from their homes. These children, when they cannot be cared for by other family members, will go to foster care and face additional challenges connecting to school and work and will be more likely to be justice system-involved themselves. Mass incarceration tears families apart, and children of incarcerated parents have a harder time navigating a path to adulthood — something that carries great individual cost to those children and their families, as well as significant social and fiscal costs for our nation.

The change in policy will also have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.  While data show that people of all races and ethnicities use drugs and sell drugs at similar rates, the vast majority of people in federal prison for a drug offense are African-American or Latino. Sessions’s policy will ramp up disproportionate rates of incarceration for African-Americans and Latinos, fully retrenching the federal government in failed policies promoting mass incarceration.

The federal government should be “smart on crime” — we should continue to focus our efforts on prevention, alternatives to incarceration, education and job training. We should expand opportunities for a “first chance” for young people struggling to become healthy, pro-social adults despite barriers to education, healthcare and economic opportunity. We cannot sacrifice yet another generation of young people and their families to the tragic realities of mass incarceration. As a country, we cannot afford to continue spending more than $80 billion annually locking people behind bars, and Sessions’s policies will put us on a path to increase those costs.

These dumb-on-crime policies are out of touch with the progress of our states, contrary to bipartisan criminal justice reform in Congress, and not worthy of the promise of justice in our nation. We can and  must do better. 

Cárdenas represents the 29th District of California.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.