by Derek Gilna
The nonprofit Human Rights Watch in 2014 published a 21-page report, “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” which outlined the problems caused by mass incarceration and offered suggestions on how to reduce prisoner counts without endangering public safety.
This report helped set the stage for future state and federal sentencing reform, and also challenged the presumption that longer prison sentences are the most effective options to combat crime: “For decades, the U.S. has passed laws that discount other forms of confinement in favor of incarceration. But in its embrace of confinement as medicine that cures all social ills, the country seems to have forgotten just how severe punishment it is.”
“The federal prison population—now larger than that of any individual U.S. state’s—has grown an astonishing 721 percent since 1980,” the report said. “In the last 29 years, the state prison population has also grown dramatically, increasing over 240 percent. In 2012, almost half a million (444,591) men and women entered state and federal prisons with new convictions.”
Those facts reflected 30 years of rising prison populations, despite falling crime rates, noting that the jails and prisons hold millions of individuals, many of who are elderly or non-violent, and a disproportionate percentage are individuals of color.
However, the report accurately predicted that momentum for sentence reform was accelerating, and indeed, the federal prison population peaked in 2014-2015, and has steadily declined since, with state prisoner counts nationwide declining at even a greater rate.
The report was careful not to excuse the committing of crime, but emphasized that the criminal justice system should be smarter about imposing sanctions on offenders. “Why are U.S. Incarceration Rates so high?” it asked, pointing to the fact that the U.S. has 20 percent of the world’s prisoners with only 5 percent of its population. “When is Criminalization Warranted?” it inquired, suggesting that the violation of too many U.S. laws carry excessive criminal punishment. “When and How to Punish?” it continued, arguing that there should be “proportional sentences,” that mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated, along with the use of life sentences without parole. It also argued that more effort be made to “Treat Youth and Adult Offenders Differently,” and “Tailor Prosecution, Sentencing, Custody of Youth to Their Needs and Potential.”
Its other suggested reforms, including drug sentencing reforms regarding crack prosecution and the release of elderly, non-violent offenders, presaged many of the provisions of the 2019 First Step Act.
As noted in the report’s conclusion, “In this briefing paper, we have offered a summary of some key human rights principles that lawmakers and other others could use to craft fair and effective reforms. As the growing bipartisan embrace of criminal justice reform indicates, protecting public safety, enhancing human dignity, and promoting the human right to liberty are mutually achievable goals.”
Source: “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” Human Rights Watch, 2014.
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