“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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“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.

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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.

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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.”

“Releasing 6,000 Inmates’ Isn’t Enough”

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Blakinger’s Post article hits the nail on the head for multiple points:

  • Pre-trial detention – 20% of the inmate population – is incarceration of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime.  The current bail system means that the poor have to stay in jail until trial while the wealthier can be freed.
  • Incarceration of mentally ill inmates, at least as it currently stands, is doing more harm than good.  The majority receive essentially no treatment outside of some medication.  Outpatient or even inpatient treatment facilities would be less expensive and more effective than incarcerating the mentally ill.
    • (See also the documentary “Into the Abyss” on solitary confinement)

“…prison inherently is a bad environment for drug treatment. About 65 percent of inmates have drug addictions, but only 11 percent are treated, according to a 2010 report by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Not only do prisons rarely treat addictions, they often make addiction worse.”

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  • Incarceration does no good for and usually harms drug addicts.  Non-violent drug addicts (picked up for drug offenses, petty theft or possession) are given no meaningful treatment in prison.  Often, addictions worsen or “ratchet up” while incarcerated.  Blakinger gives the example of several women she knew who entered jail alcoholics and left heroin addicts.

Economically and humanely, it is evident that America’s current correctional system needs to change.

Read Blakinger’s article here

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.