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Bipartison Bill Would Reduce Prison Overcrowding

It is recognized that many prisons in the United States are overcrowded and do not rehabilitate inmates. The use of mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders has helped create the world’s largest prison population. The excessive imprisonment of nonviolent offenders is part of a national problem–exploding costs for state and federal prison budgets. A common sense approach to both problems, sentencing and prison overcrowding, would reduce recidivism and save money. The following article reported the latest legislative efforts at combating the problem of prison overcrowding.

By Galen Carey, National Association of Evangelicals – 4/29/13

Thirty years ago, the National Association of Evangelicals adopted a policy statement condemning America’s overcrowded and non-rehabilitative prisons.  We recognized the need to punish offenders and incarcerate dangerous criminals but noted that “half of those in prison have been convicted of non-violent offenses.” For these offenders, we recommended biblically-based sanctions like restitution “as an alternative or supplement to incarceration.” We also opposed excessive incarceration due to its high expense and because it undermines rehabilitation.

Looking back three decades later, it is remarkable how true our statement remains, and how little policymakers have done to improve the situation in our prisons.

Today, the United States has the world’s largest prison population. The get-tough crime policies of the 1980s, and especially the increased use of mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, have filled state and federal prisons to well beyond their capacities. Ballooning corrections budgets have started chewing up funds for education, infrastructure and health care. States across the country have responded and saved their taxpayers money by adopting evidence-based programming like drug courts for addicted offenders and stricter probation programs like Hawaii’s HOPE program to reduce incarceration rates. States as varied as South Carolina, Rhode Island, Delaware, Georgia, and California have repealed or narrowed mandatory minimum laws or created exceptions, known as “safety valves,” to give judges some flexibility when the mandatory sentence leads to absurd or unjust results.

But the federal government lags far behind. The federal prison system is at 140 percent of its capacity; half of its 218,000 offenders are serving time for a drug offense. A recent Congressional Research Service report blamed the overcrowding largely on mandatory minimum sentences, which send people to prison for decades whether they deserve it or not. The federal Bureau of Prisons budget is $6.8 billion – a full quarter of all the money the Justice Department is allotted to fight crime and keep us safe. The answer isn’t more money (there isn’t any) or more prisons. The answer is better policies that save us money while protecting public safety.

Representatives Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) have proposed just such a solution. Their Justice Safety Valve Act, like its identical Senate counterpart introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would give judges permission to sentence people below the mandatory minimum prison term if that sentence fails to serve the goals of punishment. For example, if we can be kept safe by giving a low-level, nonviolent drug offender eight years in prison instead of the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, the new bill would permit the judge to do so. Those cost-savings could be used for crime-fighting grants or recidivism-reducing programs. That prison bed could be reserved for truly dangerous and violent offenders like those who recently bombed Boston.

The bill also recognizes that mandatory minimum sentences sometimes produce absurd or simply unfair results, as in the case of a young woman named Mandy Martinson. Mandy became addicted to methamphetamine after she left an abusive relationship. She found a new boyfriend who was kind to her and sold the drugs she craved. He kept handguns (which Mandy never used) and drugs in her home. When police arrested him, Mandy was held accountable for the drugs and guns, which triggered a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for her. The judge thought Mandy deserved a 10-year punishment. She was, after all, a first-time offender who started receiving drug treatment and was on her way to sobriety before she was even sentenced. And Mandy’s boyfriend, who had a prior drug conviction, received only a 12-year sentence, because he had valuable information to trade to prosecutors in exchange for a shorter term. Mandy had no such information, and the judge had no choice. He was required to give Mandy 15 years in prison, despite his conviction that she was not a threat to public safety or likely to re-offend.

The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow judges like Mandy’s to save expensive prison beds for people who really deserve them. The bill would ease prison overcrowding, increasing the odds that offenders are rehabilitated behind bars and don’t re-offend when they return to our communities. Enacting the bill would move us one step closer to the National Association of Evangelical’s vision of a world where punishment keeps us safe, rehabilitates, and is a wise use of our tax revenue.

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10 Responses to Bipartison Bill Would Reduce Prison Overcrowding

  1. PrisonPath April 30, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    “Just goes to show how far we still have to go! My dream? That we would start addressing the iatrogenic effects of labeling everybody through a deficit perspective! How can anyone rebuild on a foundation that reinforces that which doesn’t work!!!

  2. Norman DeLisle May 6, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    Mandy Martinson started receiving drug treatment and was on her way to sobriety before she was even sentenced and will have 15 years of sobriety when she gets out. Mandy had no intention of getting sober or getting away from this violent person who sold drugs to our youth and was willing to use a weapon (or why else would he have one) so she is guilty by association, guilty of contributing to delinquency of minors before during and after the fact, and just guilty of being a stupid person (which she has a right to do), I do not like mandatory minimums and believe this bill is a good one. But do not try to break my heart with storylines like those of Mandy and tell me she was trying to do better after she was caught. Unless rehabilitation is part of the prison system Mandy and many more like her will be back to doing drugs as soon as they are released.

    • Michelley May 20, 2013 at 6:35 am #

      I agree with your statement as a whole as it applies to most offenders. However, I disagree with how you think it applies to Mandy……You see she is my sister-in-law and is an amazing inspirational person to all in her situation! She’s never once claimed she was innocent thought she didn’t deserve to be punished…..she knows she made poor choices and was rightly held accountable for those…..But the punishment given for that accountability is what is unjust and what she and many others (including her sentencing judge as well as the 3 pro bono Washington D.C. Attorneys fighting for her to be free right now) feel she didn’t deserve! This article points to mandatory minimums and the injustice of them as a whole….it is not asking for anyone’s sympathy nor does it seek to “break anyone’s heart”….Mandy is just one of many examples given to show those who fail to see or who are just ignorantly blind to the mandatory minimum issues and the injustices it causes! People complain about drugs and those who do them or sell them or what have you and how they get arrested, then released only to go do it all again and how their tax dollars are being wasted on contributing to that cycle and to the drug addict and/or dealer….yet no one is willing to try to do anything to make it better…..I’m a paralegal….I know firsthand how messed up the justice system is and how many offenders just keep on cycling through…which frustrates me just the same because I wish.they’d get a clue but I don’t just sit and turn a blind eye to the issue….I’m willing to do what I can to try to get them the help they need and should be receiving!! let’s say you have a person who is a daredevil who by their own choice is constantly hurting themselves and always in the E.R. for this or that injury….a doctor wouldn’t turn him away because he did it to himself…he’d try to fix the injury….why should a drug addict be any different? we shouldn’t turn them away and lock them up…..we should try to fix the addiction!

  3. PrisonPath May 6, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    By Art–Has a bill be introduced? By whom and where?

  4. PrisonPath May 7, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    By James–I agree but the problem is that when prisons become overcrowded and costs increase the first thing to go is program space and program funding.

  5. PrisonPath May 8, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    The first thing to go is the most expensive and that is personnel, and what you have left are personnel who staff a prison with lower morale. Among those that are left , safety for the prisoners and staff suffers. There By Norman–is no time for rehabilitation because everybody is spending their time watching their back. We cage men and women like animals for a year and then expect them to go back out into society and act like human beings that is no way to treat human beings. We closed down psychiatric hospitals of the 1960s we should of just move them or their personnel into the prison system to treat the psychotics and retrain those that could be retrained so that they could function within the rules of society

  6. PrisonPath May 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    By David–First, we are the worlds highest incarceration nation regardless of 3 strikes and other related laws. But those only worsened things. Our policies on many issues leading to overcrowding are more to help politicians get elected than to actually reduce crime. The war on drugs is a clear example. Studies have shown those addicted do much better in terms of recidivism if put into rehab instead of prison and costs vastly less. That alone would reduce numbers significantly. And that is only one variable.

  7. PrisonPath May 9, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

    By Brian–We cannot solve the problems we have using incarceration. Not that we do not need to incapacitate people, we do. But not at the rate we are. We are destroying lives not fixing them. True some people need less fixing and more incapacitating but many could be helped if we were actually interested in doing so.

  8. PrisonPath May 10, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    By David–I see a problem I believe is inherent in the system and one I have seen in colleges.
    In colleges I have often seen committees formed in an area where the committee members are not the available experts but rather academics from other areas. In the situation at hand – Incarceration – I see a similar problem – politicians seeking votes more than real results. Were we to utilize experts in the field I would think the incarceration problem would be less an issue.

  9. PrisonPath May 16, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    Forrest–I think I could write an entire paper on this one problem. There are so many variables. Example, REHAB vs INCARCERATION. There needs to be a balance. An offender fails REHAB then he or she should be INCARCERATED. Not INCARCERATED then an attempt at REHAB. It is a mindset. Another problem, Street Gangs vs Prison Gangs. Most young offenders are members of a gang for survival. That applies to their neighborhood or their Prison home. Another problem is the actual trial that put the person in prison. Most offenders cannot afford a decent attorney so they get a public defender. Public Defender attorneys get paid rather they win or lose a case. Also, they are overwhelmed with their case loads. So plea bargaining is the normal trait. Too much and not enough.

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