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The 'Mass Incarceration Crisis’

Expanding clemency will save taxpayer dollars and give deserving men and women a second chance at life outside of a prison cell—goals that Americans across the political spectrum should be able to agree on.

  • Inimai M. Chettiar
  • Nicole Austin-Hillery
Published: April 28, 2014

Cross­pos­ted from The Wall Street Journal

In his April 23 Polit­ical Diary item (“Prison Break”), Jason Riley asserts that the Justice Depart­ment’s clem­ency initi­at­ive caters to “the left’s soft-on-crime senten­cing policies” at the expense of public safety. In truth, the right and left are work­ing in tandem to roll back the misguided and inef­fect­ive crim­inal justice policies that created today’s mass incar­cer­a­tion crisis.

With 5 percent of the world’s popu­la­tion, the U.S. has 25 percent of its pris­on­ers. Many of these are nonvi­ol­ent offend­ers imprisoned because of draconian senten­cing laws that led the prison popu­la­tion to triple since 1980. Today, it’s not just liber­tari­ans call­ing for senten­cing reform. Fiscal conser­vat­ives are shocked by the prison system’s immense cost: at an aver­age of $30,000 a year per pris­oner mass incar­cer­a­tion drains money from police, educa­tion, and other taxpayer prior­it­ies at a time of fiscal crisis for govern­ment at all levels. And those on the reli­gious right who support second chances are appalled by a system that locks away nonvi­ol­ent offend­ers for decades.

Evid­ence shows that longer sentences do not make offend­ers less likely to commit crimes. In fact, putting low-level offend­ers into prison with more seri­ous offend­ers can actu­ally cause them to commit more crimes upon release. Expand­ing clem­ency will save taxpayer dollars and give deserving men and women a second chance at life outside of a prison cell. These are goals that all Amer­ic­ans, across the polit­ical spec­trum—in­clud­ing those in communit­ies hit hard­est by these overly harsh sentences—should be able to agree on.