The End of an Era?

At the same time that Cook County is finally reducing the daily population of the Cook County Jail, the United States as a whole appears to be reaching a political consensus that mass incarceration is unsustainable. As is often observed, the United States has five percent of the world’s population, but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

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Most of the Republican presidential candidates have joined Democratic politicians who have long called for mass incarceration to end. In fact, at the moment two leading Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul, have progressive public positions on ending mandatory minimum sentences, which are a major contributor to mass incarceration.

As the topic gains prominence in the national spotlight, it is also being recognized that ending mass incarceration will be easier said than done. The most common call is to end the incarceration of low level non-violent offenders and those imprisoned for drug possession. Unfortunately, if that were to happen it would hardly make a dent in the overall prison population. Fully half of the inmates in state prisons are there for violent crimes. And most drug offenders in prison are there for drug dealing, not drug possession.

In addition there are one federal and fifty state court and prison systems, each of which will have to be reformed to reduce the level of incarceration.

The good news is that the debate is beginning to move from whether mass incarceration can be ended to how it might be ended.  Excessively lengthy prison sentences are the primary contributing factor to the exorbitant incarceration rates that we face today. Sentences are far longer than necessary to serve legitimate purposes of the protection of the public. But due to “tough-on-crime” rhetoric often heard from both sides of the isle over the last decades, politicians in the United States are used to increasing prison sentences, not lowering them. Take for example the continued push in Illinois for mandatory sentences for gang members convicted of having guns.

The approach that would likely be most effective would be for each state legislature and the United States Congress to examine their respective sentencing laws and develop specialized, comprehensive revisions that could be shown to both protect the public from crime and reduce high levels of incarceration. Present incarceration rates are simply not necessary for crime control, are extremely expensive, and have been implemented in highly racially discriminatory ways.

This will not be easy. During the President Obama’s first term, U.S.Senator Jim Webb proposed a national commission to examine American sentencing practices and to make recommendations for reform. Even though the proposed commission had backing from many quarters, it was not authorized by the Congress largely because of the tepid response of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. But the call for reform has grown louder now than it was just a few years ago and can no longer be ignored. The Obama administration now more strongly supports such measures than it did in its first term. If the relevance of this topic in presidential hopefuls’ platforms is any indication, the pendulum has finally begun to swing back, and we are at the beginning of the end of the era of mass incarceration.

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