Believe in human rights? Change who gets locked up at home

Human rights begin "close to home," Eleanor Roosevelt, a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, once wrote. And unless they have meaning there, "they have little meaning anywhere."

Many members of Congress do not seem to heed Roosevelt's words. Their rhetorical commitment to human rights worldwide doesn't necessarily translate into action between our shores.

Take a look at our federal prisons. The United States is imprisoning people who shouldn't be locked up in the first place. The U.S. government has many tools available to regulate behavior it wishes to discourage, yet deprivation of liberty is too often the measure of first response.

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For example, the federal government has decided to prosecute and imprison more and more unauthorized immigrants by charging them with illegal entry or re-entry. Even one instance of unduly prolonged or unnecessary time in federal prison is too many, but illegal entry and re-entry are now the most prosecuted federal crimes, making up 50 percent of all federal criminal cases. Nearly half of all the growth in federal offenders sentenced during the 20 years between 1992 and 2012 is due to increased illegal reentry convictions.

Here’s who's getting scooped up and put in federal prison for illegal entry or re-entry: Rosa Emma Manriquez, a grandmother in her 60s who had lived in the United States for 40 years without incident, and who left and tried to re-enter the United States without authorization to be with her family (six adult children and numerous grandchildren, who are all U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents).

Same with Gabriela Cordova-Soto, deported for a minor drug charge despite her permanent resident status, who was trying to return to her four U.S.-born children, and who herself was brought to the United States when she was 9 months old. Both served time in federal prisons.

The U.S. government also has decided to detain an arbitrary number of people in immigration detention facilities, through a quota of detention beds — an average of 34,000 per night — that it must fill, regardless of need.

Congress's decisions to both set bed quotas and force federal prison time on enormous numbers of immigrants run roughshod over any concern to protect people from needless, disproportionate and arbitrary deprivations of liberty.

The United States is also well down a path of incarcerating vast numbers of people for drug-related crimes — half of all federal prisoners today. By setting long mandatory minimums for drug crimes, the government has been filling prisons at an exponential rate — long sentences being "the single greatest contributor" to the recent growth in the federal prison population.

These long mandatory minimum sentences don't necessarily correlate with serious crimes: Trafficking 10 ounces of crack cocaine means you face a federal 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. These long mandatory sentences are disproportionate, keyed solely to drug weight and ignore the offender's culpability or role in the crime.

Again, here's who the United States has decided merits imprisonment: For possessing 50 grams (two ounces) of crack cocaine with intent to deliver, Sandra Avery, who served in the U.S. Army and the Reserves and is a college graduate, is sentenced to die in prison. For carrying a gun while selling marijuana, Weldon Angelos is serving a 55-year mandatory minimum and can't get out of prison until he's 80. For selling 13 sheets of LSD, Timothy Tyler has been sentenced to die in prison.

It's long past time for the United States to come to grips with whom it puts in prison. Some members of Congress agree — that's why they're co-sponsoring bills like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which cuts down some egregiously long mandatory minimums and also give judges more flexibility in sentencing under those minimums.

And some in Congress have realized that the United States can't imprison its way out of a broken immigration system, so they've supported (and the Senate has passed) thoughtful immigration reform that should help to reduce the number of people imprisoned for illegally entering the country.

What's common between these two efforts is that neither has passed Congress and reached the president's desk. Right about now, members of Congress who have bucked these smart reforms should take heed of Roosevelt's words: without respecting human rights at home, the United States shall "look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Human rights begin at home. But they do not end there — they are universal. Anywhere in the world where people are being put in prison for wrong reasons, or kept in prison for far longer than necessary, human rights are at stake. To fully embrace human rights, Congress should take a close look at its prisons, and who's in them.

Ginatta is the advocacy director for the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch.