The tough on crime era needs to end
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For America, September is a time for sober reflection given the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans by terrorists who commandeered four airplanes into the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon, and the field of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Yet, another bleak milestone is overlooked in September despite its far-reaching effects.  Twenty-two years ago, on September 13, 1994, President Clinton signed into law the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill which incentivized states to punish more severely and enact stricter mandatory sentencing laws by providing them with $8.7 billion dollars.

Clinton’s anti-crime stance was built on a race-tinged campaign that Professor Michelle Alexander characterizes as The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  In 1971, President Nixon championed the so-called “war on drugs.” This was followed by the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in New York. By the 1980s, the federal government passed laws eliminating parole for federal prisons, and in 1986, established mandatory minimums for federal drug offenses and instituted the 100:1 crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing ratio.

In 1991, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released a study which detailed the racial disparities caused by mandatory minimum sentencing. Despite the findings, politicians continued to peddle cheap slogans such as “three strikes and you are out,” and “get “tough on crime,” and “if you do the adult crime, you do the adult time.”  Four decades after the start of the war on drugs, America’s prison population grew more than 700 percent.  And, although the U.S. represents only 5 percent of the world's population it houses 25 percent of the world's prisoners – the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Since the explosion of mandatory minimum sentences, studies such as the Pew Research Center on States found that harsh sentences have a counterproductive crime reduction value. Worse, too many children are being raised by a parent who is in prison, and too many people with felony records are unable to gain employment or regain the right to vote. The Vera Institute and Human Rights Watch found the impact fells hardest on communities of color despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a rate equal to or often higher than that of African Americans, African Americans are incarcerated on drug charges at a rate 10 times greater than that of whites.  Put differently, according to Nick Turner of the Vera Institute, "If you're a black baby born today, you have a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison or jail. If you're Latino, it's a 1 in 6 chance. And if you're white, it's 1 in 17.”

This September, Congress has an opportunity to redirect its criminal justice legacy by adopting a criminal justice reform bill that addresses mass incarceration; targets mandatory minimum sentences; confronts disparate racial impact; tackle mental health and addiction issues as a public health issue; and promote comprehensive reentry and rehabilitation services. These goals are achievable if Congress commits to supporting legislation that relies on research and evidence, not on political sound bites.

Currently, there are those championing bills that have been reported out of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees as criminal justice reform bills. While these bills reduce the number of prison admissions and length of imprisonment in some limited cases, and shorten two supersized mandatory minimums, they do not eliminate any mandatory minimum. Worse, the Senate bill actually creates two new mandatory minimums related to heroin and the fentanyl additive and both bills create new mandatory consecutive sentencing enhancements, which must be served after any other sentence.

It is said that insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different result. It is utterly confounding that decades after the adopting devastating crime laws Congress would dare to entertain bills with more mandatory minimum sentences and fail to address mass incarceration or its related disparate racial impact. The public deserves to know what studies and analysis were done on those bills to make certain that the proposed bills will reduce incarceration, not contribute to racial disparities, and address drug addiction as a health problem. Just as important, any bill coming out of Congress should demonstrate proven techniques to address recidivism and save the taxpayers money. If a conservative state like Texas can do this, then why won’t the federal government?

Congress should instead give strong consideration to an alternative, bipartisan legislation that was designed after one and a half years of study and assessment. The SAFE Justice Act - the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act - (H.R. 2944), co-sponsored by Republican Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerJudiciary members battle over whether GOP treated fairly in impeachment hearings Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment MORE of Wisconsin and Democrat Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottDemocratic lawmaker tears into DeVos: You're 'out to destroy public education' Democrats lash out at DeVos over proposed changes to loan forgiveness plan House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers MORE of Virginia, is the evidence-based, mandatory minimum sentencing reduction, prevention focused, incarceration reducing, comprehensive police training, rehabilitation for all and second-chance programs bill that America needs.

If we are promoting a bipartisan bill, then let it be one that stands on evidence and not political expediency or a chance for a photo-op at the Rose Garden. African American families and communities have paid too high a price for the political points gained by politicians who have sold Americans snake-oil criminal justice policies. If a bill does not reduce mandatory minimums and mass incarceration, conform to evidence and research, and address racial disparities, then it is not reforming the criminal justice, it is merely perpetuating a form of injustice deeply rooted in this country.

This September, let’s take the optimistic step toward true reform and collectively push for the adoption of the SAFE Justice Act. It is evidence-based to lessen crime, save money, and reduce racial disparities that pervade our criminal justice system.

Yearwood is the president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus which helps the Hip Hop community with civic engagement. Follow Yearwood on Twitter @RevYearwood. Follow the Hip Hop Caucus on Twitter @hiphopcaucus.


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