Wake up, America: It’s Time for Something New

Post Date: June 28, 2013

Today’s Washington Post is loaded with sentencing reading that will kill at least half an hour of your Friday workday.

First, take this column by Michael Gerson.  Interestingly, Gerson used to work for the late Chuck Colson’s organization Prison Fellowship Ministries, so his interest in mass incarceration goes beyond the journalistic. He notes how right and left are seeing the folly of a tough-on-crime movement that gave us the world’s largest prison system and, yes, played some part in reducing crime, but at enormous cost:

But the social side effects of get-tough policies are coming under increasing scrutiny. On the left, Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander presses the case against a criminal justice system that sweeps up large numbers of young African Americans, sometimes for relatively minor drug offenses, places them in dangerous and dysfunctional institutions and then, upon release, denies them basic democratic rights. “Today,” she points out, “there are more African Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850.”

But serious criticisms of mass incarceration have emerged on the right as well, summarized in a recent essay by Eli Lehrer in National Affairs. Lehrer critiques a system that removes 2 million people from the workforce, produces high levels of recidivism and (relatedly) subjects prisoners to inhumane conditions. Prison order is often maintained by gangs, with the tacit approval of prison authorities. By one estimate, 20 percent of inmates are subjected to coerced sexual contact.

Mass incarceration is America’s tragic success. It is effective and indiscriminate. It has increased safety, and it has deepened resentment.

Lehrer raises the appropriate policy question: Can rates of incarceration be rolled back without compromising safety? His essay makes a good case for “yes,” outlining an approach that “continues to use incarceration as an important policy tool, but that changes the frequency and length of prison stays and vastly improves the circumstances and conditions within prison walls.”

This would involve, Lehrer says, “shortening, but not eliminating, mandatory minimum sentences.”

Ahem.  Mr. Lehrer, we have a solution in mind:  the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013.  It would not eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, and it would not shorten them by replacing one arbitrary sentence length with another. It would allow judges to address what we all know:  that one-size-fits-all sentences simply do not fit everyone. Judges would have the option to sentence below the mandatory minimum when that sentence is unnecessarily lengthy, won’t enhance public safety, won’t rehabilitate, or won’t fulfill other historical reasons we punish in the first place. It would save money, alleviate prison crowding, and decrease that resentment Mr. Gerson mentions. People resent a criminal justice system that does not give them the most basic human dignity: being treated like an individual.

The Justice Safety Valve Act has been introduced in both Houses of Congress, and it’s a reform anyone — lefty or righty — should consider a realistic, cost-saving, and safety-maintaining remedy for our over-stuffed prisons.

The Post also has an op-ed from Jody Kent Lavy of the Campaign for Youth Justice on the use of life without parole sentences for juveniles. The U.S. Supreme Court just held that these sentences are unconstitutional. In response, some states are simply resorting to the next-harshest sentence available for kids.

This highlights the U.S.’s lust to punish in a way nothing else can. If we want to treat even juveniles as harshly as we can, how close are we, really, to achieving Gerson and Lehrer’s hopes for a saner system?

We need to wake up, folks. The system we’ve created isn’t sustainable. We can’t punish everyone for everything, as harshly as we possibly can. We can’t keep using one-size-fits-all punishments that do a great job filling prisons and costing a fortune and a questionable job restoring lives and protecting communities.

It’s time for something new.

Leave a Comment

Note: All comments are held for moderation before being published.