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Crowded Prisons at the Crossroads

Our new report shows nearly 40% of America’s prisoners could be released with little to no risk to public safety. These are people who shouldn’t have gone to prison in the first place, or have already served sufficient time.

December 23, 2016

Cross-posted from New York Daily News.

As the country gears up for a Trump presidency, his pick for attorney general is giving pause to justice reform advocates. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions vocally opposed sentencing reform in the Senate this year, saying — contrary to reality — that actions designed to imprison fewer nonviolent offenders would release “violent felons” into the street.

But all hope is not lost. Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sens. Mike Lee and John Cornyn and others have strongly backed reform. And many conservative lawmakers have led efforts to reduce prison populations in their states, protecting public safety at the same time. In fact, 27 states have decreased both crime and imprisonment over the past 10 years, including New York.

A new report from the Brennan Center shows we can build on their successes. Our researchers found nearly 40% of America’s prisoners could be released with little to no risk to public safety. These are people who shouldn’t have gone to prison in the first place, or have already served sufficient time.

The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population and nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. It’s a problem that’s been building for years. In 1974, the country’s imprisonment rate was 102 per 100,000 people. It quadrupled by the turn of the century, reaching 470 per 100,000 in 2000. By 2007, the imprisonment rate reached its peak of 506 prisoners per 100,000 people.

Time inmates spent in prison also dramatically increased. The average prison stays for state inmates jumped by 33% from 1993 to 2009.

This system disproportionately punishes people of color. The imprisonment rate of African-Americans is 5.5 times higher than that of whites, and much of that cannot simply be explained by higher criminal conviction rates.

This is the greatest civil rights issue of our time.

Some opponents of criminal justice reform like Sessions have argued that releasing people from prison will have “long-lasting, harmful consequences” for our country. But in recent years, crime has plummeted to levels not seen since the 1960s, and research shows incarceration wasn’t responsible for that drop.

Take New York City, for example. In the early 1990s, Gotham recorded yearly homicide rates of more than 2,000 people. Last year, the city saw less than 400 homicides.

Statewide, the crime rate has dropped by 21% since 2006, and the murder rate has dropped by 35%. At the same time, the state reduced its incarcerated population by 18%.

This is a remarkable accomplishment given that New York pioneered some of the harshest sentencing laws in the country.

In the early 1970s, the Rockefeller drug laws created mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for possession of 4 ounces of narcotics. The punishment was the same as a sentence for committing second-degree murder. About a decade later, Congress enacted a similar measure, creating a new trend of strictly sentencing low-level drug offenders to more time behind bars.

These punishments, many of which still stand today at the federal and state level, were largely a knee-jerk reaction to crime. They are not grounded in scientific rationale.

The Brennan Center’s new report offers an evidence-based path forward. It’s a blueprint for how, even in the age of Trump, we can significantly cut the prison population across the country while keeping Americans safe.

Sentencing people for a longer amount of time has little impact on public safety, and can even harm it. Studies show lower-level offenders in particular can learn criminal behavior behind bars.

We found that 25% of prisoners, almost all nonviolent, lower-level offenders, would be better served by alternatives to incarceration, such as treatment, community service or probation. An additional 14% have already served sufficiently long prison terms and could likely be released within the next year with little risk to public safety.

To be sure, incarceration is appropriate in many situations. But even for 58% of the prison population serving time for more serious crimes, their sentences could be reduced to more proportional lengths.

The way this country uses prison is inhumane and strikingly ineffective. The next President must continue the long-overdue reexamination of our incarceration policies, not turn back time.