Monday, October 31, 2011

NYT Editorial Supports Webb Commission Bill

Last week was a bit of a slow week in sentencing news, but a New York Times editorial from Saturday starts this week with a bang.  The Times comes out in support of Senator Jim Webb's (D-VA) bill to create a National Criminal Justice Commission to review our country's expensive and counterproductive addiction to prisons.  So far, the bill, S. 306, hasn't made it out of the U.S. Senate, but FAMM is working to change that.  Here's the full editorial:

Falling Crime, Teeming Prisons
Published: October 29, 2011, The New York Times

Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has a smart proposal to create a bipartisan commission to review the nation’s troubled criminal justice system and offer recommendations for reform. The National Criminal Justice Commission Act would be a valuable first step toward reducing crime as well as punishment. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans derailed the bill recently, with some falsely claiming that it would encroach on states’ rights.

As a means of controlling crime, America’s prisons are notoriously inefficient and only minimally effective, often creating hardened criminals out of first-time offenders. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In the past generation, the imprisonment rate per capita in this country has multiplied by five. There are 2.3 million Americans in prisons and jails. Spending on prisons has reached $77 billion a year.

While crime has gone down notably, just 10 to 25 percent of the decline can be credited to the increase in imprisonment. The rest is from the waning of the crack epidemic, the aging of the baby boomers and other factors.

Even as the prison population has grown, less than half of the inmates are serving time for violent crimes. Far too often, prison has become a warehouse for people with drug or alcohol addiction. More than half of the population has some form of mental illness. Without proper addiction and psychiatric treatment, many end up back in prison soon after their release.

The incarceration rate has had a devastating effect on minority communities. African-Americans, who make up one-eighth of the population, now make up about 40 percent of those in prison. African-American men have a one-in-three chance of spending a year or more in prison. The trend affects whole communities, depressing earnings and increasing recidivism.

There are, however, ways to end this cycle of incarceration. This could be done by reducing sentences for nonviolent offenses, ending mandatory minimum sentences and cleaning up drug markets nationally. Reasonable senators should support the bipartisan commission that Senator Webb is calling for, which would cost only $5 million and could help bring about compelling reforms.