Issue in Focus
Feb 13 2015
America’s criminal justice system is in need of reform not because current policies have failed, but in many ways because those policies have succeeded. Prevailing law-enforcement strategies have helped make communities safer around the country, but not without a high cost. Although America has only 5% of the world’s population, it has more than 25% of the world’s prison population. America now incarcerates more people than any other country.
In this way, the current system, for all its merits, nonetheless leaves too many Americans behind – some of them reformed offenders languishing in prison, some of them innocent men, women, and children on the outside, trapped in fraying communities with too little security and too few fathers, uncles, and older brothers.
A generation of tougher-on-crime policies has created new challenges that our generation now has to meet. We have the challenge of over-criminalization; of over-incarceration; and over-sentencing. We have a mountain of empirical evidence demonstrating the social and economic value of stable, intact families – and the costs of their breakdown.
We have prison policies that make rehabilitation the exception rather than the norm. And we have regulations that make it too hard for even reformed offenders to build a new life and earn an honest living after their release.
While those who violate our laws must be held accountable, we as a society must ensure that the punishments we impose are just and fair. The power to imprison must be used with wisdom and balance.
The Smarter Sentencing Act aims to be smarter about the way that we punish drug crimes and offers immediate relief to an overburdened federal prison system. This legislation recognizes that crime must be punished—no mandatory minimum penalty is eliminated – but it recognizes that punishment must fit the crime and allows judges to impose sentences that reflect the fact of each case. It will free up scarce resources to fund other important areas of criminal justice, like policing and evidence-based prison programming, and allow nonviolent offenders to return more quickly to their families and communities.
Criminal justice reform is not so much about letting people out as it is bringing people in; to craft policies to help reformed offenders and their families fully participate in our society and economy, and to help build an America that gives them the opportunities we would want for ourselves.