Rethinking our approach to incarceration
Our country’s incarceration crisis has spiraled out of control. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled from roughly 500,000 to more than 2 million people. Although we only account for 5 percent of the world’s population, Americans comprise 25 percent of its incarcerated population. And, in federal prison, more than half of the inmates locked up for drug offenses have no history of prior violence.
Many members of congress are working to fix this. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a bill currently moving through the senate. It’s the epitome of bipartisan cooperation; introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the bill is strongly supported by the likes of Cory Booker (D-N.J.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). It would allow judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum for non-violent individuals who are convicted of a first-time or low-level repeat drug offense.
This is no blanket provision requiring universal leniency. The bill doesn’t eliminate a single mandatory minimum. If a judge thinks an individual is a threat to society, then that judge still has all the authority contained in the current law to levy a harsh sentence. And there are many cases where a harsh sentence is the right sentence to render justice. But in cases where the context of the case doesn’t merit decades behind bars, the judge has more leeway to give an appropriate sentence.
From my time serving as the U.S. Attorney here in Nevada I know the criminal justice system works as a deterrent primarily because of the certainty of punishment, not the severity of punishment. In other words, those considering criminal acts are dissuaded because they might be caught and punished, not because of the amount of time they may end up serving. I’ve seen how our harsh mandatory minimum policies for non-violent offenders too often end up doing more harm than good, preventing people from rebuilding their lives without even decreasing crime.
Doesn’t it make more sense to use finite law enforcement resources towards efforts that actually deter crime? About $70 billion are spent on corrections yearly in this country, and the Department of Justice spends about one third of its budget on prisons. Under the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, the Justice Department will be able to reduce its prison spending, freeing up valuable tax dollars for law enforcement. The bill also creates re-entry programming that gives the formerly incarcerated a better shot at becoming contributing citizens. Given the challenges our nation faces at home and abroad, we need all of our citizens functioning at their highest potential. It’s a national security imperative.
For some time now, Nevada has been ahead of the curve with mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Nearly 10 years ago, the state legislature repealed mandatory sentencing enhancements for certain offenses. And, contrary to the predictions of critics it worked — our violent crime rate dropped more than 81 percent, and law enforcement continues to keep Nevadans safe every day.
It’s time to enact these reforms nationwide. I urge Sen. Dean Heller to sign on as a supporter of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
It might be unusual to hear this argument coming from a former U.S. Attorney, and a Republican one, at that. But, I’m not alone. I’ve joined more than 165 police chiefs, prosecutors, and sheriffs from across the country to form Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. We recognize the system now needs to be fixed, and our current sentencing laws don’t guarantee a safer America.
Together, we’re speaking out. We’re asking lawmakers around the country to support this bill. It will reduce recidivism with reentry programs, strengthen law enforcement by freeing up additional resources to target the most violent members of our communities, and give non-violent Americans a chance to return home and lead productive lives after their punishment is completed. I hope our representatives in congress heed our call, pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and make us all safer, and our criminal justice system more effective.
Richard Pocker formerly served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada. He is now the Administrative Partner for Boies, Schiller, & Flexner LLP in the firm’s Nevada office.