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Human Rights Report Reveals Inequities in U.S. Sentencing Practices

“Nation Behind Bars” is a 36 page report exposing the egregious effects that decades of unfair sentencing practices have had on U.S. citizens. Pointing back to the “tough on crime” stance taken by many politicians in their quest for election during the last three decades the report cites the need for policy makers to take a more responsible approach to law-making. The report encourages lawmakers to increase their efforts to ensure proportional punishment within the nation’s judicial process.

One of its first suggestions cites the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws and recommends the creation of sentencing commissions to ensure that criminal sanctions are fair and appropriate. Over two million citizens are currently imprisoned in the United States. This country has seen a 430 percent increase in incarcerated citizens between 1979 and 2009. Federal prisons have grown by over 700 percent in the last three decades. State prisons have grown by more than 240 percent during that same period.

“The ‘land of the free’ has become a country of prisons,” said Jaimie Fellner, senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the report.  “Too many men and women are serving harsh prison sentences for nonviolent and often minor crimes.”

Nine percent of US prisoners are serving a life sentence and many of those prisoners are serving mandatory life sentences for petty offenses mandated under unreasonable, three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws. One in three prisoners serving life sentences are serving life without parole and at least 2,500 of those serving life without parole were convicted of crimes committed before they were 18-years-old.

Young people are being locked up at an alarming rate while the elderly prison population steadily continues to increase. In 2011, the U.S. incarcerated over 95,000 adolescents, under the age of 18, in adult prisons. The number of state and federal prisoners over the age of 65 has risen by over 60 percent since 2007.

The report sheds light on the glaring racial disparity in the US prison population. Black males are incarcerated at a rate of 3,023 per 100,000 as compared to only 478 white males. For black females the rate is 129 per 100,000 compared to 51 per 100,000 for their white counterparts. Much of the disparity directly results from unreasonably harsh sentences for possession and use of crack cocaine

Authors also address the unnecessarily harsh penalties imposed against people whose only crime is to cross the border illegally. Currently, more than 40 percent of federal prosecutions are for immigration violations and account for “30 percent of new admissions to the federal prison system.”

  Minor drug dealers also make up a disproportionate number of incarcerated citizens. Over 50 percent of the federal prison population and 20 percent of the total U.S. prison population consists of drug offenders.

“Too many men and women are serving harsh prison sentences for nonviolent and often minor crimes. How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?” asks Fellner.

Report recommendations spoke of the need to strengthen “human rights principles” and the “…prudent use of criminal sanctions, fair punishment, and equal protection of the laws.” It specifically called for legislators to address fundamentally unfair practices within five areas of the nation’s judicial system: 1) Ensure Proportional Sentences; 2) Treat Youth and Adult Offenders Differently; 3) Promote Drug Policies that Respect Liberty, Autonomy and Privacy; 4) Reduce Criminal Sanctions for Immigration Offenses; and 5) Ensure Drug Laws and Drug Law Enforcement are not Discriminatory.

 “Punishment should be proportionate to the offense and the individual’s blameworthiness and no greater than necessary,” reads the report. As Fellner puts it, “Fair and prudent punishment is not only a core human rights principle, but a core principle of American justice that has been neglected for far too long….community well-being is best served by fair laws and just sentences.”

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