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Sentencing Reform: A Much Needed Transition

Under the administration of President Obama, the White House has been taking many strides towards reforming our nation’s correctional system. Earlier this year, President Obama signed off on the early release of about 90 inmates, incarcerated for nonviolent drug related charges. Just this month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously agreed to release 6,000 more inmates that were serving time on similar charges, and come November there are 8,500 more prisoners that may potentially face the same fate. Out of 100,000 other inmates that are incarcerated on nonviolent drug offenses, up to 46,000 can possibly be released early from their sentences.

President Obama’s administration and the U.S. Sentencing Commission are embarking on a reformative journey of the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Together they are working to tackle the currently imposed harsh mandatory sentencing laws, and to remedy the lack of fairness that is present within the system. Democrats and Republicans alike are showing to believe that mandatory prison sentences have led to mass incarceration rates, but have been utterly ineffective in reducing/deterring drug-related crimes.

Currently, 1 out of every 99 Americans is behind bars, and 1 out of every 31 adults is either locked up, or serving time on either parole or probation—meaning that 3.2 percent of our population is under some form of correctional supervision. The United States’ population constitutes 5 percent of the World population; however, we house 25 percent of world prisoners. It is no longer a secret that our justice system is in dire need of reform and attention. Starting under U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and significantly furthered under the current administration, change may soon be knocking.

The most alarming statistics relating to our incarceration rates pertain to racial disparities. Despite blacks and Hispanics making up only 1/4th of the national population, they represent about 60 percent of prisoners. According to the NAACP’s findings, African Americans now constitute almost 1 million out of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population and are incarcerated nearly 6 times more often than whites. As of 2001, 1 in every 6 black men had been incarcerated and if current trends continue, this statistic will grow to 1 in every 3.

It has been statistically noted that five times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans. Even though blacks represent 12 percent of the total drug users population, they are arrested 10 times more than whites because of drugs, make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and are 59 percent of those in state prisons for drug related crimes. Another major issue, are the sentencing disproportions. For example, African Americans serve essentially the same length sentences for drug offenses (58.7 months) as Whites do for violent crimes (61.7 months).

Juveniles within the black community constitute 58 percent of the youths admitted into state prisons, 44 percent of youths that get detained, and 46 percent of youths that are judicially waived to criminal court. Direct causes of these high incarceration rates within the black community have traditionally been related to inner city crime, low socioeconomic status, and quite frankly, policy imposed discrimination. Governmentally we have made efforts to “get tough on crime” and have been running full force with our “war on drugs.” A major contributing factor to so many African Americans getting harsher drug sentences than whites has to do with the sentencing variation between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Despite these two drugs only having 2 ingredient differences, sentencing disparity is 18:1 (prior to 2010, it was a 100:1 discrepancy).

Currently, the U.S. government is spending about $80 billion a year on corrections and our prison system is contributing significantly to the $200 billion annually allocated to public safety. According to the senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, Jesselyn McCurdy, told the New York Times, “Far too many people have lost years of their lives to draconian sentencing laws born of the failed drug war.” With all this being said, reform acts are finally being drafted by congress.

The new Sentencing Reform Act has been introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), ranking member John Conyers (D-MI), and representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D- TX), Judy Chu (D-CA), Mike Bishop (R-MI), and Paul Labrador (R-ID). Together, these six politicians are working to reduce mandatory sentences. For example, the Goodlatte-Conyers bill would include provisions to reduce the mandatory life without parole sentence for a third felony to a mandatory minimum term of 25-years, to reduce the 20-year mandatory minimum for second felony offenses to 15-years, to reduce the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for certain gun possession crimes to 10-years, and to reduce the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of numerous gun related offenses to a mandatory term of 15-years. This bill will also more narrowly define which prior offenses can trigger longer mandatory minimum drug sentences, will attempt to reduce the crack-vs-powder sentencing disparities, and will significantly expand the drug “safety value” exception so that nonviolent drug offenders with non-serious criminal histories can receive sentences below the mandatory minimum term.

Many U.S. cities have seen an increase in homicide rates in recent years, prior to these 2015 releases. Some citizens find that letting more ex-convicts out of prison early will exacerbate this trending spike, while others claim the two are unrelated. Despite having an unknown outcome to come, this reform is a great move in the right direction.

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