Cross-posted on South Coast Today
For the past four decades, the U.S. has incarcerated a higher percentage of its people, and for a longer period of time, than any other Democratic nation. There are currently five times as many people incarcerated now than there were in 1970, thanks in part to a spike in mandatory sentencing penalties, three-strikes laws, longer prison terms, and the “war on drugs.” While the U.S. experimented with its incarceration binge, a remarkable phenomenon simultaneously occurred. The crime rate fell dramatically. In fact, violent crime has fallen by almost half since its peak in 1991, and crime rates in Massachusetts have generally followed that trend.
Yet, it would be wrong and dangerous to conclude that increasing incarceration was responsible for the decline in crime. In fact, a recent Brennan Center for Justice report concluded that the effect of increasing incarceration on the crime rate for the last 15 years has effectively been zero. Other factors, such as the aging population and the number of police on the street, are more responsible for the crime drop. Indeed, states such as Texas, California, Michigan, New York and New Jersey have reduced their prison populations while their crime rates continued to fall.
One of the drivers of mass incarceration is mandatory minimum sentences. These laws have replaced judicial discretion across a wide range of offenses. Their aim is to keep those who violate certain laws in prison for longer periods of time. In Massachusetts, this is expensive. The Bay State spends roughly $45,000 per inmate a year on food, clothes and prison costs. Massachusetts spent more than $1 billion in 2015 on prisons alone.
In an effort to alleviate the state’s expensive mass incarceration problem, several bills that seek to repeal all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses will be reviewed by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary at a public hearing today. Some of these proposals have garnered the support of numerous law enforcement officials, academics, and recently, the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Ralph D. Gants. Just last month, Chief Justice Gants called for an end to mandatory minimums and argued that mandatory minimum sentences eliminate a judge’s ability to impose a sentence that is individualized for each defendant. Ending mandatory minimums, Gants said, “makes fiscal sense, justice sense, policy sense and common sense.”
According to the nonpartisan think tank Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, 70 percent of prisoners under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction incarcerated for a drug offense were sentenced under mandatory minimum statutes. Across the nation, 77 percent of Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. And in Massachusetts, a 2014 public opinion poll found that support for mandatory minimum sentences for any crime has fallen to 11 percent.
There is compelling evidence that mandatory minimums do not make us safer. In 2009, Rhode Island repealed all mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses. After mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses were repealed, Rhode Island’s prison population decreased but, more importantly, its violent crime rate decreased as well. There is little to no evidence that longer prison terms for many nonviolent offenders make us safer. Indeed, it can have the precise opposite effect. There is vast research indicating that prison can cause inmates to commit more crimes upon release partly because low-level offenders find themselves surrounded by more serious and violent offenders in prison and partly because they have trouble finding employment and reintegrating into society upon release.
Using incarceration as a one-size fits all punishment for crime has passed the point of diminishing returns. Policy makers would be wise to focus on legislation to eradicate mandatory minimum penalties. Massachusetts has the opportunity to serve as a model for other states to learn that long prison sentences are not equated with an increase in public safety.
Greg Torres is president of MassINC and publisher of CommonWealth Magazine, and a member of the Criminal Justice Reform Coalition