A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
Mass incarceration has imposed such staggering human and economic costs on our communities that conservatives and liberals are finally reaching a consensus on the need to reform the criminal justice system. Momentum is building for a congressional bill that would eliminate or reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders.
This effort is welcome, and surprising, but depressingly inadequate. The Bureau of Prisons estimates that there are 95,000 federal drug offenders. Even if the bill could apply retroactively, it is so limited in scope that many would not qualify anyway.
It’s hard to see how the bill could affect even four percent of America’s 2.2 million prisoners going forward, let alone many of the 10,000 who are serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses.
I suspect the bill has gained bipartisan support for three reasons. First, it’s so easy to implement. Second, it only targets the least dangerous offenders. Third, there have been so many stories that have given us permission to feel empathy for those whose lives have been destroyed by lengthy prison terms for relatively minor crimes.
But limiting action to uncontroversial cases won’t have much of an effect on mass incarceration. We need greater efforts to expand our capacity for empathy by humanizing the tragedies that all people face through encounters with our adversarial system. We need a more nuanced language to express how its single-minded focus on increasingly harsh prison terms as the only means of justice makes it fail to consider human needs everywhere, from victims and their families to offenders.
I am haunted by the wish that our system had offered me a way to consider and address my victims’ and their families’ needs more fully, or had given us an opportunity to engage each other more humanely. But by placing outcomes and processes over people, it offers little in the way of redemption. As long as this continues, it will be difficult to talk meaningfully about reducing sentences for a broader range of crimes, and with it the incarceration rate.
This is true even though modern American sentences are much longer than those of most other countries, and longer now than they’ve been historically. Between 1972 and 2007, the number of prisoner-years per murder increased nine fold, while the overall incarceration rate quintupled, according to research by the late William J. Stuntz.
But at a certain point, increasingly long sentences fail to have much deterrent effect or much positive impact on public safety. I don’t know many people in prison who calculated the potential length of a prison term prior to committing their crime.
And people naturally become more risk-averse as they age, which reduces the need to keep them locked up. Dana Goldstein at the Marshall Project reported that crime rates for all serious crimes drop sharply after age 30, yet we’ve seen a 550 percent increase in the number of prisoners over age 55 since 1990.
Lengthy sentences also tend to exacerbate the serious physical, emotional, and mental costs that prison already imposes on prisoners. I’ve seen my friends with long sentences develop a real sense of desperation and hopelessness as they struggle to find meaning in the unchanging purgatory that stretches before them.
Prison does a poor job of helping us feel agency or hope, because it is not structured in a way that shows society values our lives. There are too few opportunities that facilitate introspection or growth, that teach marketable skills, or that help us to restore and deepen relationships with loved ones — in a word, that make us feel like human beings with dignity.
In some European countries, prisoners are initially sentenced to shorter terms, with the option for parole boards to add more time if warranted. In the United States, however, the floor for prison time is fixed at a very high level, with virtually no adjustments possible for prisoners who prove they no longer need to be behind bars.
This may be because we have a hard time thinking of alternatives to incarceration when someone breaks the law. But they do exist, and they are effective. The New York Times reported that every dollar spent on drug diversion courts in New York from 2009-2013 yielded $3.56 in savings by reducing the number of people who ultimately went to prison or committed another crime.
Community-based alternatives in Texas from 2007-2013 reduced spending, the crime rate, and parole failures alone by 39 percent. And third-strike offenders in California who were released early had a recidivism rate below five percent after 27 months, compared with nearly 50 percent for everyone else.
Aside from the metrics, modern America’s approach to mass incarceration denies the capacity for people to be rehabilitated and redeemed. It tells inmates that our lives don’t matter to society.
“How much punishment is enough?” Marc Mauer at the Sentencing Project asked Congress in March. “Where does redemption come into the picture?” Good question.
Fabrizio Montermini is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.