We Need to Talk about Our Prison Population Problem
There are a lot of problems with our prison system, but the one I’m referring to in the title of my post is twofold. One, non-violent offenders often receive sentences that are disproportionate to their crime; and two, our prisons have become overcrowded and sometimes even inhumane because of all the non-violent offenders whiling away lengthy sentences behind bars.
Let’s take a look at some of the statistics first. As of 2009, there were 2.23 million Americans serving time for felonies in state and federal prisons or local jails. We have the largest prison population in the world, and our rate of incarceration is five to ten times higher than that of Western Europe and other democratic countries. Although our country only has 5% of the world’s population, we have almost a quarter of all the world’s prisoners. If there’s a better argument out there for making sure that you get a good criminal lawyer in Chicago, I haven’t heard it.
Simply put, our existing prison structures are not equipped to hold this many inmates, and, as a result prisons are becoming overcrowded. Prison overcrowding brings with it a myriad of problems, including increased stress for inmates and prison officials, psychological damage to inmates, prison mismanagement, and an increase in prison violence.
Some might make the case that our crowded prisons are a “necessary evil” and that our prison system is in place to keep us safe from dangerous criminals. This black-and-white logic breaks down, however, when you realize that nearly half of all federal inmates are being imprisoned for drug crimes, not violent offenses.
How We Got Here: The War on Drugs
Our prisons haven’t always had this overcrowding problem. In the 1970s, our federal and state prisons held about 200,000 inmates—about a tenth of our prison population now. A major change came in the 1980s, when our government promoted a “war on drugs” to address what was then viewed as a crack cocaine epidemic. During this time, Congress enacted “mandatory minimum” sentences, which required certain sentence lengths for certain federal and state crimes. This led to unduly harsh punishments for a lot of drug offenders, including many first time offenders with no history of violence.
Harsh sentencing for drug crimes continued into the 1990s, when Congress enacted “three strike” laws, which gave repeat offenders longer mandatory sentences, and “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which require federal prisoners to serve a minimum of 85% of their original sentence and makes early parole nearly impossible.
Today, we’re seeing the effects of these laws: expanding prison populations and the incarceration of people who shouldn’t be spending their life behind bars. Our system has incarcerated people like Barbara Scrivner, a mother who has served 20 years of her 30 year sentence for possessing a few ounces of meth, and Sharanda Jones, another mom serving a life sentence for a first-time non-violent cocaine offense. These are people who pose no real threat to society and who just want to be released so that they can spend their remaining years with their families, but the drug crime laws of the ‘80s and ‘90s have made their early releases extremely unlikely.
New Clemency Guidelines Reflect Shift in Attitude towards Drug Crimes
There is some hope for people like Scrivner and Jones. Our overcrowded prisons have led many politicians to reflect on the efficacy of long sentences for drug offenders, and this past April, US attorney general Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration had created new guidelines for clemency petitions, allowing non-violent offenders who have served at least 10 years to apply for early release.
Currently, these new clemency guidelines are only applicable to federal prisoners who have had a clean record while serving time, but several states may soon begin considering similar measures in order to reduce prison crowding. California in particular could benefit from these guidelines – their overcrowded state prisons have made headlines in the past few years, and courts have ordered Governor Jerry Brown to reduce overcrowding.
As a drug lawyer in Chicago, I believe that my own state of Illinois could also benefit from adopting similar guidelines. In 2012, the AP reported that there were 49,154 inmates in Illinois state prisons, well over the 33,700 inmates our prisons were designed to hold.
The Bureau of Prisons just announced the new guidelines to federal prisoners in late April, and electronic surveys are going out to those inmates whom the Bureau thinks deserve clemency. It’s too early to see exactly what kind of an impact this is going to have on our country’s prison population, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. By combining the clemency guidelines with lesser sentences for first-time drug offenders, we can reduce our prison population and keep it from rapidly ballooning again.
About the Author
Andrew M. Weisberg is a criminal defense attorney in Chicago, Illinois. A former prosecutor in Cook County, Mr. Weisberg,is a member of the Capital Litigation Trial Bar, an elite group of criminal attorneys who are certified by the Illinois Supreme Court to try death penalty cases. He is also a member of the Federal Trial Bar. Mr. Weisberg is a sole practitioner at the Law Offices of Andrew M. Weisberg.