10 Ways to Reduce our Out-of-Control Prison Population
As someone who writes and organizes around issues of imprisonment and detention my work is often met with a certain type of resignation. Though many politically-conscious individuals are quick to lament our nation’s chart-topping incarceration rates, they’re justifiably overwhelmed by the complexity and magnitude of our so-called justice system. Many simply don’t know where or how to begin tackling the most salient, silent problem in the United States today. The following list represents a clear set of strategies for reducing our 2,300,000+ prison population without compromising public safety.
1 . Replace mandatory sentencing laws with more flexible and individualized sentencing guidelines.
By 1983 forty-nine state legislatures had enacted mandatory sentencing statutes and in 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which, though, well intentioned, established 5- and 10-year mandatory sentences for drug importation and distribution. Two years later President Reagan signed the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act granting the federal government authority to penalize all conspirators in drug-related crimes regardless of their role. Mandatory sentencing laws like these limit judicial jurisdiction by preventing sentencing judges from considering a full range of mitigating factors in a defendant’s profile, including the defendant’s role in the offense or likelihood of committing a future infraction.
2 . Strategically reduce “three-strikes” laws for non-violent offenders.
Although twenty-six states have passed “three-strikes” laws for violent offenders since 1993, California’s 1994 “three strikes” ruling punishes minor, non-violent crimes with the penalty of twenty-five years to life. Nearly 4,000 prisoners in the state of California are now serving life sentences for a third strike offense that was neither violent nor serious. This figure represents more than 40 percent of California’s 8,500 third-strike offenders. This November, California voters will have a chance to revise the “three strikes” law through a ballot-measure—Proposition 36— which, if passed, will eliminate life sentences for offenders whose third strike is neither serious nor violent.
3 . Relax Truth-in-Sentencing thresholds
Today, over thirty-five states require offenders to serve 85 percent of their prison sentence regardless of their potential fitness for early release. This is excessive and arbitrary. Federal Truth in Sentencing guidelines emerged in the mid-nineties as a way to incentivize tougher crime policies on a state-by-state basis. States that resisted the 85 percent standard became ineligible from receiving federal block grants authorized by the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
4 . Organize against prison gerrymandering to ensure that low-income communities—and particularly communities of color—receive a fair portion of federal aid.
The method by which the Census Bureau counts individuals in prison is problematic. It leads to a significant distortion of representation at local and state levels and results in an imprecise picture of community populations for funding and electoral purposes. The Bureau currently tabulates prisoners as residents of the towns where they are incarcerated. According to the Sentencing Project, however, states can correct the Census data “by creating a special state-level census that collects the home addresses of people in prison and then adjusts the U.S. Census counts prior to redistricting.” California, Delaware, Maryland, and New York have already adopted this important practice.
5 . Make full employment a domestic policy goal.
In his 2009 book entitled Punishing the Poor, U.C. Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant demonstrates that 60 percent of those incarcerated over the last ten years were living at or below 50 percent of the poverty line at the time of their arrest. Wacquant further argues that roughly 70 percent of those sentenced over the last ten years were unemployed at the time of their arrest. The message is clear: unemployment in the formal labor market substantially increases one’s risk of imprisonment.
In 1978 Congress passed the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (Humphrey-Hawkins Act) which explicitly affirmed the goals of full employment, growth in production, and a balanced budget. Unfortunately, the plan was abandoned shortly after it was signed into law. Today, however, a similar legislative opportunity exists to work toward full employment. Senator John Conyers, Jr. (D- MI) has recently drafted a piece of legislation-- H.R. 870: Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act—aimed at establishing the National Full Employment Trust Fund to create full employment opportunities for the unemployed and the marginally attached.
6 . Eliminate the use of for-profit, private prison companies.
By definition, for-profit, private-prison firms rely on steadily increasing incarceration rates for their long-term survival. For instance, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit, private prison owner and operator, admitted in its 2010 Annual Report that its “growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by [extant] criminal laws.” To circumvent these challenges, CCA spends over $1.2 million each year lobbying for more expansive crime laws. In addition, CCA’s performance as a company hinges on contractually guaranteed occupancy rates of up to 90 percent. This makes the goal of population reduction difficult.
7 . Fund prison education programs and incentivize inmate participation.
The Washington State Institute for Public Policy recently released a study suggesting that adult prison education programs can reduce recidivism, that is, the rate at which previously released offenders will re-enter the criminal justice system, by 6-to-16 percent. Not only does educational programming help to save taxpayers money, it also allows inmates to develop skills they can take to the labor market upon release.
In order to increase participation rates in correctional educational programs states should consider adopting legislation similar to California’s SB X3-18 which authorizes California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to grant low-risk offenders sentence reduction so long as they“actively participate in and complete components of in-prison rehabilitation programs.” Under this plan inmates can earn up to six weeks of early-release credits each year.
8. Provide incentives for employers to hire “ex-convicts.”
Post-release employment makes a big difference. An unemployed ex-offender is three times more likely to recidivate than one who has secured steady employment. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program many small businesses may be eligible for up to $9,000 in credits and/or deductions for hiring formerly convicted employees. Congress should consider taking yet an additional step by passing legislation that temporarily reduces payroll tax liabilities for small businesses hiring ex-convicts.
9 . Suspend “Operation Streamline.”
In 2011 over 400,000 undocumented immigrants passed through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) immigrant detention system. The number of detainees has doubled since 2005 when the Bush Administration implemented “Operation Streamline,” a zero-tolerance program that requires the federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of all unlawful border crossers. The program, which primarily targets migrant workers of color with no criminal history, has resulted in burgeoning caseloads in many federal district courts along the border. Prior to the enactment of “Operation Streamline,” DHS Border Patrol agents voluntarily returned first-time border crossers to their home countries or detained them and formally removed them from the United States through the civil immigration system. Further, “the U.S. Attorney’s Office reserved criminal prosecution for migrants with criminal records and for those who made repeated attempts to cross the border. Operation Streamline removed that prosecutorial discretion, requiring the criminal prosecution of all undocumented border crossers, regardless of their history.” As a result, “Operation Streamline” mandatorily forces undocumented migrants through the federal criminal justice system and into U.S. prisons instead of routing non-violent individuals caught crossing the border into civil deportation proceedings. Today, the U.S. maintains a sprawling web of detention facilities, comprised of more than 240 federal facilities, state prisons and county jails, at an annual cost of $1.7 billion to taxpayers. Close to 50 percent of these facilities are now operated by private prison companies.
10 . Support community policing efforts.
Community policing involves building a collaborative relationship between local law enforcement officials and the community. With the police department no longer the sole arbiter of “law and order,” all members of a given community take an active role in promoting public safety and well-being. Community policing has proven successful in its implementation. A report recently released by the city of Detroit, for example, indicates that an initiative co-launched by the Detroit Police Department and local residents in June has yielded a dramatic drop in home invasions. In the first 120 days of the program, home invasions plummeted by 32 percent compared to the same period in 2011.