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

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 11.45.39 AM

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.

Advertisements

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.

29782_1385663052988_7101368_n copy

Prosecutors Rally Against Sentencing Reform

obama

There are an increasing number of senators that are working behind closed doors aiming to relax sentencing laws that are applicable to some of the country’s serious offenders. Moreover, the United States’ President, Barack Obama in June engaged in a week long issuance of commutations and making pro-reform speeches. These pro sentence reform movements have however been met with growing criticism. Following these developments, federal prosecutors have rallied their opposition towards sentencing reforms (Nelson, 2015). The last several decades have seen prison sentences take up a more significant role in the nation’s criminal justice system. Stringent policies on crime have led to the enactment of mandatory minimum laws and three strikes laws that put more emphasis on imprisonment for a wide variety of offenses. The sentence reform act is a highly controversial policy in the United States of America that aims to reduce a wide variety of federal mandatory minimum drug and gun sentences rendering the reductions retroactive; cause the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to become retroactive; while intensifying the federal ‘safety valve’ exclusion for drug mandatory minimum sentences. Although the reforms are well intended, there are a wide range of issues plaguing these reforms, which should make citizens become apprehensive about the reforms and consequently say no to sentencing reforms.

One of the inherent issues with the sentencing reforms is based on its premise that demands the release of not just low level drug dealers but also thousands of hard core criminals. This premise is undeniably clear and cannot be concealed or denied. It is critical that the society appreciates the prepossessing fact that sentencing reform serve as the initial step towards the release of violent offenders on the streets. This has a consequent of increasing the level of violence: in essence, is this what American’s really need?

The act of reducing prison time for serious drug offenders and other violent criminals lacks any form of public support. Pro reformers have constantly avoided supporting any form of public poll on the issue. These groups understand that only an insignificant percentage of the society would support reduced sentencing for high level drug traffickers and violent criminals. Worse still, even the drug offenders who are already out in the streets would not support the early release of their counterparts as this would adversely affect their business in addition to posing a threat to their lives: Therefore, best not to ask.

The sky rocketing recidivism rate reported by various studies are a clear indication that shortening sentences will result into increased crime at a faster rate. There lacks a subtle way to state this fact, or an honest means of denying it. According to these statistics, 75% of released felons continue to engage in criminal activities. Therefore, by releasing the felons earlier, these individuals will return to crime earlier.

Mandatory minimum sentences are in addition considered necessary for tackling two significant issues facing the criminal justice system, which are: disparity in sentencing and unduly relaxed sentences. Mandatory minimum sentences are effective at ensuring that sentences are uniform within the entire federal system while at the same time guaranteeing that offenders are punished in accordance with their moral blameworthiness by connecting the punishment to the crime as opposed to the individual.

Sentencing reforms that are aimed at doing away with mandatory minimums and reducing prison sentences are ill advised and do not serve the good of the American society.

Source: www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/07/17/prosecutors-rally-against-sentencing-reform-say-build-more-prisons

“Their Punishments Didn’t Fit the Crime”

 

In July, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders.  14 of them had been sentenced to life in prison for non-violent drug offenses.  The president stated that, “…I’m determined to do my part wherever I can” to right the injustices of the criminal justice system.

Obama is trying to rectify a system that is deeply flawed in both it’s sentencing and the application of those sentences.  The sad truth is that the poor and minority are disproportionately sentenced harshly by the current system, and those with economic or social means are able to escape the fate of their less fortunate citizens.

Douglas-Lindsay-239x300

One of those granted clemency, Douglas Lindsay, is emblematic of those wronged by the system.  Lindsay, an African American, poor army veteran, was convicted of a nonviolent drug crime (possession and intent to distribute crack) and was sentenced to life in prison.  If Douglas had been white, wealthy, and caught with powder cocaine…well, he probably would have gotten probation with a good (read: expensive) lawyer.

 

 

“A Living Death”

“For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.”

The ACLU has published a report on the 3,278 people who are serving LIFE in prison for nonviolent offenses.  Much of this is due to racial sentencing disparities.  Whatever the cause, these thousands of nonviolent offenders are robbed of a life; because life in America’s violent, soul sucking corrections system is not really a life at all.  Read the report here.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 3.08.22 PM

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?

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 10.14.53 PMsource: http://www.dualdiagnosis.org/jail-time-drug-users/

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.”

Dollars & Sense: Rehabilitation Over Incarceration

f2

Numbers don’t lie, as the old adage goes. So let’s take a look at some pertinent ones:

  • 5 million people were arrested in 2013 for non-violent drug charges
  • Close to 25% of those incarcerated (in all types of institutions) were non-violent drug offenders
  • U.S. taxpayers spend approximately $17.5 billion a year incarcerating non-violent drug offenders (25% of the $70 billion incarceration bill the U.S. pays annually)

$17.5 billion spent on warehousing non-violent drug offenders- almost all of them drug addicts who would benefit from treatment and rehabilitation. That’s roughly $30-40,000 per inmate per year. With the average sentence length of a nonviolent drug conviction running 6 years, that’s $180,000. A drug addiction left untreated will result in continued drug use and arrests-which is why 63% of nonviolent drug offenders recidivate within 3 years. Recidivism costs the U.S. taxpayer more money re- incarcerating the same individual. The almost complete lack of any drug treatment available to inmates is a large reason for the astronomical recidivism rate.

Rehabilitation programs, which are the only realistic way to help and keep a drug addict from re-offending, cost drastically less than incarceration. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that, “Treatment can cut drug use in half, decrease criminal activity, and reduce arrests”.  Thirty day inpatient rehab programs can cost as little as $2,000, while outpatient programs are even lower cost (as little as $3,000 a year). Placing non-violent drug offenders in an inpatient or outpatient treatment program, combined with probation, is much cheaper to the taxpayer than incarceration. Economically, everyone benefits: less initial cost to the taxpayer, long term the offender is much less likely to re-offend, saving future incarceration costs, and the offender themselves can become a productive job-holding member of society.

Rehabilitating non-violent drug offenders is not just bleeding-heart, save the whales policy.  It makes hard numerical sense.  Completely objectively, would you rather spend $10,000 or $180,000?  I would much rather spend $10,000.  When a non-violent, drug addict receives proper treatment and probation, that individual is much more likely to:

  • stop using drugs and spending thousands on their addiction
  • less likely to reoffend
  • get a job and pay taxes

An untreated drug addict will just continue to reoffend, costing the taxpayer more money indefinitely.

 

Sources: drugabuse.gov, drugwarfacts.org, http://www.cepr.net