Let’s focus on sentencing reform, not building more prisons


Sen. Bobby Joe Champion
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion

Despite crime rates going down in the U. S., our rates of incarceration continue to increase. Rather than build new prisons, it’s time to take a look at the way we are sentencing to make sure the people we send to prison actually belong there. Oftentimes they don’t.

The newly-established Prison Population Task Force met recently to discuss Minnesota’s growing prison population — something that is not unique to our state, but is a growing trend in a country that’s home to less than five percent of the world’s population, but makes up 25 percent of its inmates. The U. S. had 2.2 million people behind bars as of 2015, making us the most incarcerated nation in the world.

There has been some recent good news, however, as the Justice Department announced recently that 6,000 federal inmates will be released early in an effort to reduce overcrowding and relieve nonviolent drug offenders of the harsh sentences they’ve received over the past three decades. This is a promising development, but it’s important to remember the dire necessity of looking at both sentencing reform and the disproportionate demographics that land in federal prison.

While Minnesota’s prison population continues to rise because of penalty increases in the areas of DWIs and domestic violence, one fact remains: there are too many people who occupy our prisons due to lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes, and they simply should not be there. We know the War on Drugs, which has landed so many in prison, has failed.

We know that African American and Latino males are incarcerated at extremely higher rates than their White counterparts for the same crimes. We know that for many of these people, the crimes they committed were the result of systemic poverty, a lack of resources and oftentimes hope, and a system that has failed them. We know that something desperately needs to change, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Instead of building more prisons as the Prison Population Task Force has suggested, perhaps we should look at sentencing reform. Perhaps we should acknowledge that nonviolent offenders have served their time — often too much time — and should have the ability to access programs that reintegrate them with society, that reduce recidivism. The fact of the matter is that our criminal justice system is broken and it’s time that we fix the problem rather than augment it.

Nearly 75 percent of people who end up in federal prison for drug offenses are either Black or Hispanic. Add to that the mandatory minimum sentences assigned by Congress, and you’ve got widespread injustice. According to Federal Judge John Gleeson, “Seven percent of federal drug trafficking defendants are managers or kingpins, while the remaining 93 percent are low-level dealers. But the severity Congress intended for that top seven percent is being spread across our docket.”

What does this mean? It means that we often sentence nonviolent drug offenders in a one-size-fits-all manner, and that’s unacceptable. It means that nonviolent offenders often serve longer sentences than the violent ones. It means that communities of color have unfairly been thrust into a system that’s beyond their control.

So where do we go from here? I don’t know the exact answer, but I can tell you that we should not take the “quick-fix, build more prisons” approach. Nonviolent crime sentencing reform is necessary in our criminal justice system, and measures must be taken to ensure this trend of mass incarceration — predominately in Black and Hispanic communities — is stopped in its tracks.

I also encourage everyone with access to YouTube to view the “Vice Special Report: Fixing the System” documentary at http://bit.ly/FixTheSystem.

We know the real problem. Now let’s find a real solution.


Senator Bobby Joe Champion welcomes readers’ responses to bobbyc@senate.mn.