“How many people are in jail based on faked data?!”

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This recent Massachusetts crime lab scandal underscores how easy it is for Americans- especially poor Americans- to be incarcerated wrongly.  A chemist at a Massachusetts crime lab tampered with and falsified tens of thousands of drug samples used as evidence, forging signatures and even mixing samples to create false positives.

Of course, this is an extreme case of criminal activity within the criminal justice system- but it is also just the one who got caught.  We can never know how many people are wrongfully imprisoned because of such tampering.

Read the full Slate article here.

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Mass Incarceration: Increases Crime, Destroys Lives

The idea is simple and seemingly a truism: round up all the bad guys, lock ‘em up, and crime will go down. The American criminal justice system has obviously bought into this idea: current incarceration rates show that 5% of the American population will have been imprisoned at some point in their lives (bjs.gov).

The problem with this logic, and the prevailing criminal justice system, is that it is a fallacy. Mass incarceration, unequivocally, DOES NOT decrease crime or recidivism. In fact, the opposite is true.

There are two main reasons why the “Lock ‘Em Up” approach is such a colossal failure. First, that mass incarceration does not act as an effective deterrent to crime, and second, that imprisonment ruins life prospects and therefore increases recidivism rates.

The majority of people do not need a major deterrent not to commit crimes. People are social animals, and the drives for acceptance and social acceptance (in addition to morals) are more than an adequate barrier to an outsider life of crime. However, the majority of people begin their criminal careers between the ages of 15-25, when they are most impulsive and don’t think in the long term. Even if getting caught and a harsh sentence are highly likely, the mind set is often “It won’t happen to me”.

This issue is compounded by the fact that getting caught isn’t necessarily certain and that sentencing length is all over the map- a landmark study by Michigan professor Mueller-Smith showed that sentencing was highly dependent on what judge gets your case or how busy the courts are in a given period (quartz.com).

The second reason may truly be the root of why mass incarceration is such a tragically flawed policy. It ruins lives. Socially, economically and spiritually.

Take the case of Jay* (name changed), whom I know personally. Jay was the All-American hero growing up: Eagle Scout, active in his church, Co-Captain of the football team, and joined the Army Reserves after graduating high school. An avid outdoorsman, Jay had his fair share of extreme sports injuries and ended up getting prescribed Oxycontin for a particularly bad shoulder injury. Within 6 months he was addicted, and ended up turning to heroin when the Oxycontin became too expensive.

Like most drug addicts, Jay ended up in jail because of his addiction. He had never stolen or become violent: he was arrested trying to shoot up in a bathroom at the mall where he worked. Jay describes what happened when he woke up from his drug detox in jail:

“I realized I had a felony now- I was a felon. I had lost my right to vote, lost my job, lost pretty much everything. I knew I could handle jail; it was what my life would be like after I got out that terrified me. Who hires a felon? Who marries a felon? I felt my life sucked away from me.”

Jay would be branded a felon for life- unable to vote, unlikely to secure a good job despite his college degree and military service, no help for his addiction and generally looked at as a second-class citizen.  All for a non-violent drug offense. That’s the true tragedy and failure of mass incarceration.

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We Disagree with NAAUSA’s Views on Sentencing Reform

It is no secret that the federal prison population has dramatically increased since 1980. The War on Drugs has caused the prison population to plummet to a current 205,792, with over half of the inmates being convicted for drugs. In a recent paper, The National Association of Assistant US Attorneys (NAAUSA) blatantly states, “our federal prison population is not exploding.” They seem to believe that the drop in prisoners between 2013 and 2014 is enough to warrant their claim. However, that slight decrease certainly does not make up for the large increase that preceded it.

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This was the first of many other “dangerous myths” they attempted to refute on behalf of their position against sentencing reform. The only problem is that many of their claims lack moral, ethical, and logical support.

Another “myth” they attempt to refute is that “the federal prison population is a product of mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers.” They claim that the majority of drug traffickers sentenced in federal court are not being sentenced pursuant to mandatory minimum sentences. However, according to the United States Sentencing Commission, statutes carrying mandatory minimum penalties have increased in number, apply to more offense conduct, require longer terms, and are used more often than they were 20 years ago. In 2010, more than three-quarters (77.4%) of the 19,896 defendants convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty were convicted of a drug trafficking offense.

The NAAUSA says that violent drug dealers aren’t the only ones who deserve lengthy prison sentences. They claim that drug trafficking is inherently violent and that all drug dealing is dangerous taking the lives of thousands of Americans, destroying families, and undermining the moral fabric of our communities, regardless of whether any individual offender engages in an act of violence during the commission of a drug offense. Many communities, particularly those inhabited by minorities, have been torn apart because their fathers and brothers are behind bars. Some of these men were doing what they had to do to feed their families in their poverty stricken environments. The NAAUSA claims that sentencing reform won’t lower our taxes, but the fact of the matter is the United States spends 80 billion dollars per year incarcerating prisoners whom many of which were convicted for non-violent offenses.

In a recent visit to a federal prison to discuss the issues surrounding mass incarceration, Barack Obama said, “Imagine the good we could do, the investments we can make if we did not spend so much money incarcerating non-violent offenders.” He spoke on the case of Bernard Noble, a man sentenced to 13 years and four months for possessing two joints of marijuana. Mr. Noble is a dedicated father of seven who was working full-time and starting a small business at the time of his arrest.

The NAAUSA notes that with the recidivism rates for convicted offenders at nearly 77 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it is highly likely that many of these offenders will revert back to drug dealing once released from prison. This is just another one of many reasons why sentencing reform is necessary. Why are we spending $80 billion a year to house inmates whom many of which have the ability to become productive members of society if given the right treatment?

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The NAAUSA argues that the current federal system and the penalties for drug trafficking present the best approach toward equal justice under the law. But as Barack Obama stated in his speech at the 106th Annual NAACP Convention, “In the American tradition and in the immigrant tradition of remaking ourselves, in the Christian tradition that says none of us is without sin and all of us need redemption, justice and redemption go hand in hand.”

Non-Violent Drug Offenders Fill America’s Prisons

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“Non-violent drug offenders continue to clog the U.S. prison system, and Obama has decided to commute or pardon more than 150 inmates with hope that they can reestablish themselves into society as viable, valuable members of their respective communities. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all commuted sentences towards the end of their terms — much like Obama.” Read More

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The U.S. prison population has spiked dramatically since 1980. This is largely due to the famous (or infamous, depending on your position) “War On Drugs”.  Reagan and his “Just Say No” campaign ushered in a no-tolerance, punitive and harmful era in American criminal law.

“…casual drug users should be taken out and shot”

-L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates (1990)

Non-violent drug offenders – largely addicts – fill our prison system.  An entire generation of Americans has been adversely affected by this draconian approach to criminal justice.  It’s not just the incarcerated who are impacted: their families, friends and communities all suffer the economic, physical and emotional ramifications of their absences.  Incarceration for addicts and other low-level non-violent offenders merely perpetuates a system of exclusion, institutionalization and ultimately recidivism.

Students for Sentencing Reform advocates for rational and humanitarian change to the current U.S. criminal justice system:

  • Shorter jail or prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders
  • Community-based programs to treat and rehabilitate drug addicts and non-violent offenders
  • Institute reforms akin to California’s Prop 47 nationally

Sentencing reform and mass incarceration: NOT just a “criminal” issue.

Sentencing Reform: Not Just a Criminal Issue.