What if we didn’t incarcerate people who commit non-violent crimes? Or, if we sentenced them, what if their sentences were reasonable, instead of intolerable? What if a man who steals a $159 jacket while high gets drug treatment and a sentence of, say, two years, instead of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole? How much would we save if legally mandated minimum sentences were modified and nonviolent drug offenses were more reasonably imposed?
Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project said that eliminating more than 79,000 bed years, or the amount of time a prisoner uses a bed in prison, could save at least $2.4 billion. That’s enough to send nearly a million students to college if the $25,000 covers the cost of attendance (which it does for most state schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities). It could put nearly half a million teachers in underserved K-12 schools. It could restore availability to libraries and parks. Instead, we spend it incarcerating people, particularly those who are locked up for relatively minor crimes.
The $2.4 billion that the Sentencing Project has calculated may be a low estimate. According to the Justice Department more than $80 billion is spent on incarceration annually. How much of this spending is unnecessary and could be easily converted to drug treatment and recovery? Why do we find it so easy to incarcerate people but so difficult to rehabilitate them, knowing that the recidivism rates are high?
Within five years of incarceration, more than three-quarters are rearrested. Most were arrested for property crimes, not for drug offenses, or violent offenses. Much of the property crime could be alleviated if it was easier for ex-offenders to find employment, but after incarceration, many find the doors of employment slammed in their faces. Incarceration combined with education and societal embrace might reduce recidivism and the level of property crime.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are moving in the right direction. First, the president moved to reform drug sentencing laws, reducing the discrepancy between crack and powdered cocaine. This resulted in the Smarter Sentencing Act, which has yet to be scheduled for a vote in Congress and the Senate, despite bipartisan support for this legislation. Advocates of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Sentencing Project, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and many others support the legislation and have encouraged people to reach out to their Congressional representatives to push for a vote on this legislation.
The Smarter Sentencing Act, when approved, will make modifications in sentencing requirements. Now, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has ruled that drug sentences and be applied retroactively. This will affect as many as 46,000 prisoners. It’s not enough, but it’s a reasonable first step. If release were combined with education and access to employment, recidivism rates would certainly decrease.
The United States represents just 5 percent of the world population, but incarcerates more than a quarter of the world’s incarcerated. Nearly half of those incarcerated in federal prisons are African American. Is there a bias here? African Americans are as likely as whites to commit nonviolent drug related crimes, but African Americans are far more likely to be incarcerated. The difference — the money that provides access to great legal services; maybe the attraction of a plea bargain, guilty or not, because of the prospect of an unfair sentence; maybe bias on the part of arresting officers. Whatever the cause, it seems unfathomable that African Americans and whites commit the same crimes, but African Americans are arrested six times as frequently as whites.
If you read the November 2013 report “A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses” from the ACLU, you won’t know whether to scream or cry.
More than 3,200 people have life sentences without parole for such minor offenses such as shoplifting, trying to cash a stolen check and threatening a police officer while handcuffed. Some are sentenced because of sentencing guidelines, which mean judges have no choice in their sentencing. What makes sense about giving a shoplifter more time than a murderer?
As many as 65 percent of those who have been sentenced to life without parole are African American. According to the ACLU, “many were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency, or financial desperation.” Only in an injustice system can this be considered “just.”
There has been some progress in making sentencing fairer. Yet much more must be done until we can claim the “justice” that our Constitution promises.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.