The tale told by incarceration statistics in the United States is staggering. The nation, with about 5 percent of the world’s population, has 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. African-Americans are incarcerated at about five times the rate of white people, often for drug-related crimes, even though study after study shows the two groups use and sell drugs at similar rates. Much of that disparity is due to unfairly harsh sentences levied against those convicted of crimes involving crack cocaine, whose use is more prevalent in the black population than the powder cocaine more commonly used by whites.
The federal prison system houses about 184,000 inmates, up from 65,000 in 1990. The increase is largely due to mandatory minimum sentences adopted in 1986. And 75 percent of released prisoners end up back behind bars within five years.
For years, a bipartisan consensus has grown around the idea of significant reform in the federal criminal justice and prison systems. The goal is to send fewer people to prison, keep the ones who are jailed in for shorter periods, and take concrete steps to prepare them to live law-abiding, productive lives in society once they get out, so they can stay out.
Now that consensus has a chance to become change, with much of the fresh momentum coming from President Donald Trump.
Most American prisoners are in state institutions, and the federal push is for ideas that are starting to work to reduce prison populations and recidivism at the state level. Trump recently held a summit with governors from states confronting prison and sentencing reform.
The first step is, aptly, the First Step Act, a bill that boils down to getting inmates prepared for life after prison, and then getting them released. Passed with broad bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, the bill would provide $250 million for a five-year program to fund inmate education, job training and rehabilitation. Inmates who participate and succeed would be credited time toward early release or be allowed to transition more quickly to alternatives like home confinement and halfway houses. And in five years, we’d know a lot more about what works and be even better able to make progress.
The second step, which has garnered support in the Senate, involves shortening unreasonably long mandatory minimum sentences, often life, for some felony drug offenders, letting judges impose lighter sentences for nonviolent crimes, and reducing overly harsh sentences already levied in cases that involved crack cocaine.
Some Democrats say the plans don’t go far enough, but that is myopic thinking on an issue in which any progress has been elusive. Some Republicans, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have said these initiatives are soft on crime. They are letting the political plank and puritanical impulses of being tough on crime blind them to the facts of what excessive incarceration is doing to this nation.
The cost in dollars budgeted, lives wasted and families torn apart is staggering. Trump, by pushing for passage of a combined bill in both chambers, has the opportunity to bring home a victory that would be broadly cheered, and he needs to do so.