December 3, 2015

BARELY LEGAL | The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015

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By EMMANUEL HIRAM ARNAUD

The United States of America incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world. This was not always the case; in fact, this abominable statistic is a rather recent development. In approximately the last 30 years, the prison population increased five fold, from a mere 320,000 in 1980 to 1.62 million in 2009.  Many prominent scholars and journalists, such as Michelle Alexander and Radley Balko, agree that this rapid increase was the result of the infamous, and continuing, War on Drugs — a nationwide movement that has led to the over-policing of communities of color for crimes committed by other communities at the same rate (such as drug use), abuse of prosecutorial discretion and the creation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  More fundamentally, however, the massive increase stemmed from a movement away from a sympathetic, rehabilitative approach to enforcing criminal laws and towards a fixation on punishing offenders, especially non-violent drug offenders. The genesis of what we now call the prison-industrial complex finds its roots in the endorsement of mandatory sentencing laws.  By the height of the nation-wide crime wave in the early 1990s, most states and the federal government enacted laws mirroring the 1972 Rockefeller Drug Laws.  The Rockefeller Drug Laws, and their draconian progeny, required judges to sentence low-level drug offenders — mostly non-violent and in possession of a small amount of narcotics — to minimum sentences that often exceeded a decade. With over-policing, the War on Drugs, the criminalization of even small amounts of narcotics and long-term mandatory minimum sentencing, the federal government and various states wrote the recipe for an exploding prison population.

Our enormous prison population places an excessive economical strain on the federal government (and many state governments).  With an increase of support for more rehabilitative or empathetic approaches to criminal justice,  26 senators sponsored the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA). This bill is groundbreaking in many respects because it amplifies the frustrations of many Americans with a criminal justice system that needlessly incarcerates non-violent drug offenders for decades on end and aims to provide rehabilitative services that will curb recidivism rates. Apart from reducing enhanced penalties that applied to drug offenders and eradicating the federal “three strikes” law — both of which act retroactively — there are a few provisions in the bill that are particularly relevant to Cornell students.

The first provision of interest is a step towards reforming in-prison programming. The bill requires the Department of Justice to conduct a survey of the prisoners and assign them to appropriate recidivism-reduction programs. These programs include prison-education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training and religious studies.  Inmates who successfully complete those programs can earn early release and spend final portions of their sentences in halfway houses or on house arrest. This provision accomplishes two goals: decreasing recidivism rates through rehabilitative practices and reducing the prison population by providing a vehicle through which long-time inmates may finally re-enter society after serving at least 75 percent of their extensive sentences. Prison programs, especially prison-education programs, dramatically decrease recidivism rates and help inmates obtain employment upon release. Cornell has been involved in providing a lauded prison-education program at the Auburn and Cayuga correctional facilities, and those involved can attest to the power of prison education and the symbiotic relationship that rehabilitative programs foster.     

Another provision is of particular interest to Cornell Law students. The bill significantly limits solitary confinement of juveniles in federal custody and permits the opportunity to petition for early release for any person sentenced to life imprisonment who committed the offense as a juvenile and has served 20 years. The bill would also eliminate life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. The latter provision comes on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, in which the Court held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Our very own Professors John Blume, Keir Weyble and Sheri Johnson have been pursuing the similar goals in South Carolina, where they won new sentencing hearings for forty juvenile offenders following the Miller decision.  This provision of SRCA goes even further than Miller, and would provide much needed (albeit implicit) federal support for the eradication of juvenile life without parole sentences at the state level.     

The SRCA is a great step in the right direction. This will likely not be, however, the last prison-reform bill that reaches the Senate floor because there is much work to be done regarding this issue. It is time for our country to cease being the land of the free, home of the caged, and give honest opportunities for rehabilitation to people who found their way into the treacherous labyrinth of the criminal justice system. I urge you to read the SRCA (S. 2123) and call your state’s senators so that they may support this economically prudent, rehabilitation-oriented and empathetic bill.   

Emmanuel Hiram Arnaud is a student at Cornell Law School. Responses can be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

7 thoughts on “BARELY LEGAL | The Sentencing Reform Act of 2015

  1. The increase in incarceration rates in the US coincides with the decrease in crime rates. It may be that these trends are coincidental but too much is at stake to let the matter be carried by assertion.

    Even though the War on Drugs has been a failure it does not follow that its removal would greatly diminish the size of the prison population. It wouldn’t. Only a very small minority of criminals are in jail for drug crimes. The vast majority are in for crimes like murder, rape, robbery and assault.

    True, many are in jail for crimes caused by drug addiction or peddling. And many social ills have been bred by drugs or the war on them. But as many of both have been caused by other social ills like broken families, isolation from opportunity and failed school systems.

    Releasing to society those who have demonstrated they don’t belong there is unlikely to improve either society or them. Better for both that they stay where they are.

    • John,
      There are laws set in place that don’t even match the crime, yet they are still implemented. It is extremely bold of you to point out that this small portion of inmates should “stay where they are”. I have a family, as I’m sure you as well, and one much needed component missing is my husband. Not that he shouldn’t be reprimanded for his behavior, it is unfair and unjust for people committing violent and sadistic crimes to spend as much time behind bars as someone in there for drug offenses. He needs HELP! Not to be thrown to the wolves! This system is so corrupt and broken it can NEVER be what it should be. People like yourself may want to think about the families and children involved so that it might shed an ounce of compassion for the drug problems that the government has certainly endorsed.

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