Our nation’s laws should focus on imprisoning the most dangerous and violent members of our society. Instead, our criminal justice system traps nonviolent offenders — disproportionately African-American men — in a cycle of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration. Our government’s administrative and regulatory laws have become so labyrinthine that not even our federal agencies, let alone our citizens, know exactly how many laws are on the books.
Congress’ failure to confront these problems has created what Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) calls a “growing discontent in this country.” The lack of trust toward police in minority communities and the protests on our nation’s streets are rooted in this discontent: 57 percent of Americans express confidence in the police, but only 34 percent of African Americans feel the same way. The War on Drugs is principally responsible for the wide gap in confidence between minorities and the police. African Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, but are more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested for drug possession. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws have also contributed to fatherlessness in these communities. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with fathers in prison rose from 350,000 to 2.1 million.
The policies tear apart families, weaken communities, and ultimately make us less safe. The criminal justice legislation I have proposed with bipartisan backing would create a fair system for all Americans. It would reverse the government’s relentless attack on the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, including the right to vote and the right to due process. It will reduce the number of nonviolent felons in our federal prisons and ensure that our limited federal budget is used to imprison violent criminals.
Our nation’s criminal justice system is fiscally unsustainable and morally bankrupt. If we come together — liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans — we can create a criminal justice system that makes our streets safer and our communities stronger. As we debate the numerous policies that brought us to this point — mandatory minimum sentences, militarization of the police, overincarceration, and others — we must remember the lives that have been and continue to be impacted by these flawed policies.
We should start by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences. Few policies have been as deeply flawed or destroyed as many lives. Fate Vincent Winslow will die in prison for selling $20 worth of marijuana. Weldon Angelos will serve 55 years in federal prison for selling $350 worth of marijuana. Like many incarcerated under mandatory minimum sentences, neither Winslow nor Angelos committed violent crimes, but the judges who oversaw their cases were forbidden from exercising their judicial discretion. Instead, the government was able to dictate a one-size-fits-all punishment that serves no one. A chorus of judges has lamented the effect of mandatory minimum sentences as “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” One judge declared, “[F]airness has departed from the system” as a result of these laws.
We can restore fairness in our sentencing decisions if we allow judges to treat each case according to its specific circumstances instead of a government mandate. The is why Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and I have introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act in the Senate, which is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.-3) in the House of Representatives. The bill allows judges to exercise discretion and not apply mandatory minimum sentences when there are mitigating factors involved — such as the defendant’s criminal history and mental health. I have also joined with my colleagues Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in support of cutting mandatory minimum sentences in half for nonviolent drug offenses. Similar reforms have occurred on the state level and prove that we can reduce the federal prison population while keeping the country safe.
Our society must also be more accepting of ex-offenders after they’re released from prison. Floyd Carr of Richmond, Ky., has been out of prison for 18 years but his criminal record still prevents him from obtaining a job. The Lexington Herald-Leader described his frustration with being turned away from more than 75 jobs, and his desire to find consistent work: “I’ve been let go three times after they find out I have a record,” Carr said. “I just turned 70 and work every day ... I made a mistake and I’m still paying for it.”
Taxpayers are paying for it too, in high recidivism rates and the costs of imprisoning nonviolent offenders who are drawn back into crime by a society that defines them by their worst moments. These limited employment opportunities result in roughly two-thirds of ex-offenders being arrested again within three years of release. Dan Caudill, owner of the Caudill Seed Company in Louisville, Ky., is one man fighting to curb this costly cycle by offering felons employment and providing the second chance that so many of them hope for. The jobs that Mr. Caudill provides these offenders will grant them financial security and improve their chances of adjusting back into society. He describes these employees as some of the hardest workers he has ever hired.
If more employers followed Mr. Caudill’s example, then people like Floyd would find opportunities after they paid their debt to society — but that is just not the case. Eight months after being released from prison, only 45 percent of ex-offenders have a job — while 70 percent of these offenders held a job for over a year before they were incarcerated.
It is not a question of willingness to attain a job but a lack of opportunities that prevent ex-offenders, like Mr. Carr, from entering the workforce. I introduced the REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act) last year with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to give these ex-offenders a second chance. It creates a process for juvenile and nonviolent offenders to seal or expunge their criminal record. These offenders would have to demonstrate their willingness toward being rehabilitated to a judge in order to qualify for the process. As a result, Americans who would have been defined by drug possession crimes for the rest of their lives will finally be able to get jobs and provide for their families. The dignity and self-sufficiency that comes with economic opportunity will make it far less likely that these ex-offenders will return to a life of crime.
Employment is not the only barrier former offenders have to deal with after release. Many must also contend with the long list of civil rights they lose years after incarceration — like the right to vote. In the 2008 election, over 2.1 million ex-offenders were unable to vote even after completing their prison sentence. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and I have introduced The Civil Rights Restoration Voting Act to restore the right to vote for nonviolent offenders who have completed their debt to society.
Our methods of policing must also change. Prepared with a “no knock” warrant, the Habersham Special Response Team proceeded to force their way into the house of a suspected drug dealer. After being unable to breach the door fully, they threw a stun grenade into the residence. The flash bang was inadvertently tossed into the playpen of a 19-month-old child, resulting in significant burn related injuries. As it turns out, the suspect that the response team was looking for wasn’t even at the residence. The district attorney and Georgia Bureau of Investigations would later go on to justify the actions and procedure administered during the raid, even when taking into account the end result. Unfortunately, events like this happen all too often, bringing the need for more skepticism about the necessity of no-knock raids.
The escalation of the militarization of America’s police force has become increasingly alarming over recent years. Police departments are being equipped with military grade gear and equipment, usually with little to no oversight or documented training. Evidence has shown that the use of SWAT teams to execute search warrants disproportionality affects minorities in comparison to white suspects. Overall, “42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino.” The Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which transfers militarized equipment to law enforcement, has transferred $5.1 billion worth of new equipment from the Department to federal and local law enforcement agencies since its creation in 1997.
The Stop Militarizing Our Law Enforcement Act will substantially curb this practice. The bill restricts what equipment can be transferred or bought through the 1033 program, the Department of Homeland Security’s Preparedness Grant Program, and the Justice Department’s Byrne Grant Program. It will prohibit the transfer of militarized weaponry that was never designed to be in the hands of law enforcement — including mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles and weaponized drones. If local law enforcement is convinced that these items are necessary to protect their communities, then they should pay for it with local tax dollars and be held accountable for the expense by the people they serve.
Civil asset forfeiture is another issue that we must reform. Outside of his home in Philadelphia, the police arrested Christos Sourvelis’ son for selling $40 worth of drugs. One month later, the police were back at Sourvelis’ home, not for his son, but for his house. Thousands of innocent citizens like the Sourvelis family are having their property seized without criminal charges. What used to be a tool for targeting drug cartels and powerful crime organizations has become a weapon against law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. Law enforcement has become focused on revenue generation instead of keeping communities safe. The reforms in the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (FAIR Act), which I have introduced with Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Angus King (I-Maine), would end this perverse practice. The FAIR Act codifies into law numerous necessary reforms to the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture laws. It has one simple objective: To ensure that the government cannot take the private property of citizens without due process of law and a criminal conviction.
States as conservative as Texas and Georgia have shown us that reforming the criminal justice system makes fiscal and moral sense. The states have led the way and their success should spur the federal government to realize the folly of our current criminal justice policies. We can and must work together to create a criminal justice system that punishes nonviolent offenders without incapacitating them and stripping them of their civil rights.
Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.