100 million U.S. adults have a criminal record. That is 40% of all U.S. adults; a truly astounding statistic. There are currently 2.2 million U.S. adults incarcerated in U.S. prisons. This is the largest prison population in the world; a truly depressing statistic. The United States has less than 5% of the planet’s population but almost 25% of the incarcerated.
Thirty years ago there were only 500,000 adults incarcerated in U.S. prisons.
This is the current status of the U.S. criminal justice system. How did we become a nation of criminals? How did so many Americans end up in jail? What is going on? How did this sociological problem come to be? What can be done about it?
A BRIEF HISTORY
The explosion in our criminal justice system began back in 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. He proclaimed, “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Nixon’s program, it must be said, focused on supply but failed to have the desired effect of limiting supply at the border.
In 1981, President Reagan decided to focus on the demand-side initiatives and launched a “zero tolerance” program where punitive measures against users were emphasized. This approach culminated in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. The legislation was a flagship of the tough-on-crime movement and dramatically altered the criminal code. Simple possession of various illegal substances carried mandatory sentences, and repeat offenders were sentenced as if they had committed a violent felony. Finally, the three strikes and you’re out concept took hold and prisons began to fill rapidly with a large proportion of ethnic minorities jailed for possession of illegal substances with or without intent to distribute.
MINORITIES CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
For the last 25 years, the minority inner-city residents of the Northeast and Midwest industrial rust belt cities have been suffering an unemployment epidemic. This resulted from the flight of American legacy manufacturers to foreign countries where the manufacturers have found, what amounts to, modern slave labor. Denied any opportunity to work, many inner-city ethnic minority workers not only began to abuse drugs but turned to the drug trade for a living. At precisely the same time, President Reagan decided on a “zero-tolerance” approach to drug abuse and the courts began to impose mandatory sentences. This confluence of events created the “perfect storm” for the U.S. criminal justice system. Thirty-five years later 2.2 million U.S. adults find themselves behind bars.
WHAT’S TO BE DONE?
In a recent speech, President Obama called for meaningful change at virtually every juncture in law enforcement: from the first interaction with police officers, to prosecutorial charging discretion, to the prison sentences imposed by judges, to the conditions of confinement, to the need for job training for those who are about to be released.
“In far too many cases the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you are a low-level drug dealer or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid…Every year we spend $80 billion to keep folks incarcerated. Eighty billion…Now to put that in perspective: for $80 billion we could have universal preschool for every three-year-old and four-year-old in America. For $80 billion we could double the salary of every high school teacher in America…For what we spend to keep everyone locked up for one year, we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities.”
JUVENILE JUSTICE AND DELIQUENCY PREVENTION ACT
(This bill has been written and has been passed out of committee in the Senate but is being held up by one Senator who has singlehandedly blocked the measure from being put to a quick voice vote.)
This bill is a step in the direction of criminal justice reform. It seeks to prevent youth from being held in adult facilities, to insure that status offenses do not impact different racial groups differently, to lower long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, and to offer career training before release so that ex-convicts are not forced by a lack of employment back into crime.
By executive order, President Obama has already banned solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions in the criminal justice system.
Senator Cronyn is attempting to bring a bill onto the floor that will allow the Federal Government to follow the growing number of states and cities who have decided to “ban the box” on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot with a job interview. Senator Cronyn reminds us that,
“While the people in our prisons have made some mistakes, and sometimes big mistakes, they are also Americans. And we have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society, that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around.”
Many of our colleagues working in criminal justice remind us that true criminal justice reform has only just begun and that all of us need to be aware of this crisis and support thoughtful solutions. A divided congress has been dragging its feet. It is long past time that we give them a wake-up call on criminal justice reform.