by Chad Marks
The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population and around 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Our incarceration rate is 19 percent higher than Turkmenistan’s, 36 percent higher than Cuba’s and 57 percent higher than Russia’s. There is no other democracy that has a prison system anything like in the U.S., either in terms of incarceration rates or numbers. We spend about $80 billion a year on corrections alone.
Mass incarceration is a problem that liberals often approach as an issue of economic injustice and structural racism. Conservatives usually see it as a matter of government overspending and overreach. Recently, lawmakers have begun lessening penalties for drug-related crimes and low-level property offenses, resulting in prison populations flattening out.
While those developments have helped in some ways, they are not the answer to the real question, which is how to fix the decades-long practice of sending so many people to prison for far too long.
The Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) issued a report in November 2018 titled “Eight Keys to Mercy,” which outlines eight ways to help reduce the nation’s massive prison population. Jorge Renaud, the author of the report, wrote: “A bolder approach is necessary to truly begin to make a dent in the numbers of individuals who have served and will serve decades behind bars.”
The report points out that about 200,000 state prisoners are serving natural life or “virtual” life sentences. In addition, as of the end of 2015, one in every six state prisoners had served at least 10 years. According to the report, the driving force behind the mass incarceration problem in the U.S. is the fact that too many people have been sentenced to extremely long prison terms. Such sentences do little to advance justice, provide deterrence or offer solace to crime victims, Renaud contended.
The report outlines eight ways to shorten excessive prison sentences. At the top of the list is presumptive parole, in which prisoners are released on parole when they first become eligible unless a parole board finds legitimate reasons why they pose a continued threat to public safety. That system is used in states such as Mississippi, New Jersey, Michigan and Hawaii.
Alternatively, states can adopt a policy of universal parole eligibility after prisoners have served at least 15 years.
Another tool to help reduce the nation’s prison population is second-look sentencing. That approach allows judges to review and modify sentences after a certain amount of time has been served. Other sentence-reduction methods include the retroactive application of sentencing reforms, granting additional good time credits, the elimination of parole revocations for technical violations, compassionate release and commutations.
With respect to commutations, during President Obama’s tenure there was a clemency initiative that released nearly 2,000 federal prisoners. [See: PLN, Mar. 2017, p.12; May 2016, p.46]. This approach is not just for liberals. When Mike Huckabee, a Republican, served as governor of Arkansas, he granted 1,058 clemency applications – many for people convicted of violent crimes.
If we really hope to scale back our sprawling prison system, Renaud argued, we need legislators, judges and the executive branch of state governments, as well as the federal government, to exercise the political will to enact meaningful reforms. The key to those reforms, as stated in the report, should be rooted in extending mercy to those who have committed crimes. PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann consulted with PPI on this report.
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