Donna Brazile: States again outpace Congress in common-sense reform
On Jan. 30, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act. The bipartisan bill addresses the problem created by mandatory sentences. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., summarized the problem:
“Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”
Here are a couple of examples:
In 2010, Marissa Alexander, 33, fled inside her Florida home to the bathroom, and locked the door against her enraged, estranged husband. He broke down the door, yelling he was going to kill her. She fled to the garage, fumbled for a gun in the car and stood her ground. When he appeared, she fired a warning shot at a wall. But Marissa, denied immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, was convicted on three counts, and sentenced to three concurrent terms of 20 years.
The case was overturned. Now the prosecutor is retrying Marissa, seeking 60 years — effectively a life sentence — in three consecutive terms of 20 years. The assistant state attorney says Florida is only following mandatory sentencing laws.
Fifteen years ago, in Tallahassee, a federal judge sentenced Stephanie George, 27, the mother of two children, to life imprisonment without parole for possession of a half-kilogram of cocaine that her boyfriend (without her knowledge, she claimed) hid in a lockbox in her attic. She had no history of violence.
The judge said Stephanie had some guilt, but he also believed she was not involved deeply enough in her boyfriend’s drug trade to warrant spending the rest of her days in prison. However, mandatory sentencing laws dictated her sentence.
Millions of men and women are overcrowding U.S. prisons, the result of the war on drugs, “get tough on crime” and “three strikes” conflation that began in the 1970s and has raged on into a fifth decade.
As a result, nationally, one in 40 children has a parent in prison. Social scientists argue that mandatory laws actually induce crime: Keeping nonviolent parents apart from their children for years — decades — tears apart the fabric of families and communities. Economic hardships follow, and crime follows economic hardship.
The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Almost 61 percent of the people in federal prisons are behind bars for nonviolent crimes. Over 50 percent are drug offenders (up from 16 percent in 1970). Twenty-seven percent were locked up for marijuana-related crimes. Immigration violations are the second largest category, at 10.6 percent.
The states, meanwhile, have been lowering the percentage of those incarcerated in their prisons for drug offenses: The rate fell to only 16.1 percent in recent years.
Marc Levin, of the Center for Effective Justice, a division of a leading conservative think tank in Texas, told Texas Monthly, “(Gov.) Ann Richards built a ton of prisons and then George W. Bush built even more than she did. From the early ‘70s to the mid-2000s, you saw a six-fold increase in incarceration in Texas and across the nation.” But in 2007, when Texas was thinking of adding 17,000 prison beds at a cost of $2 billion, Levin and others successfully pressed to have one-eighth of that money spent on drug courts and rehabilitative programs for addicts. As a result, Texas’ incarceration rate has fallen 20 percent (nationally, the decline is almost 5 percent) and its crime rate is at the lowest level since 1968.
The Texas example shows how conservatives, motivated to save taxpayer money, have been working in the states to reduce sentences and close prisons. The March issue of Texas Monthly has a conservative article titled, “Why Fewer Prisons Are Good for Texas’ Economy.”
According to Pew Research in Washington, over the past five years, imprisonment rates have fallen in 31 states, and increased in only 15. Many states have shortened terms for nonviolent offenders or kept them out of prison altogether. In 2013, South Dakota and Oregon diverted money from prisons to probation and parole supervision to decrease recidivism and keep communities intact.
But California’s prison system is more than 145 percent over capacity. The state’s prisons, built to hold roughly 80,000, currently house 117,500. At one point, California was spending 8 percent of its budget on prisoners, and 6 percent on its primary and secondary students. The courts have ordered California to reduce its prison population.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced the United States will no longer seek long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The policy is not only more humane, it will save a ton of taxpayer money. The Smarter Sentencing Act —sponsored by Sens. Durbin, Mike Lee, R-Utah, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., among others — could move quickly once brought to the floor. (There’s a companion bill in the House.)
Reducing the number of inmates reduces incarceration costs, reduces the number of state employees in our goliath prison system, reduces broken homes —thus reducing joblessness, crimes and associated social ills, and revitalizing lives.
DONNA BRAZILE is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.