March 04, 2016

Mandatory minimums: a dead end road

This op-ed in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail was a collaborative effort between my friends Pastor Matthew Watts, Lida Shepherd and myself:

Across the country and the political spectrum, many people have begun to realize we took a wrong turn a while back.

While pursuing legitimate concerns about crime and drugs, Americans set off on a decades-long binge of prison building and mass incarceration. The good we sought never materialized, but the collateral damage was massive.

Unfortunately, two bills that just passed the West Virginia House, HB 4240 and 4578, would put us back on that wrong road by imposing harsh mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent drug offenders.

These measures would do nothing to make our communities safer, help people recover from addiction, reduce recidivism or help fund education or economic development.

On the other hand, they would lead to another prison population explosion, further bust the state’s budget, destabilize families and communities, deplete West Virginia’s shrinking workforce and make it harder for the state to invest in education, early childhood and economic development. And they would threaten to undo the progress the state has made with Justice Reinvestment legislation.

These bills also go against the grain of the work of many Republican leaders who have advocated a more intelligent approach to these issues. Some who have opposed mandatory minimums include former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

A little background from the Coalition for Public Safety might help put things in perspective. The coalition is a national effort of unlikely allies and supporters that includes such conservative giants as Koch Industries, Americans for Tax Reform and Freedom Works as well as groups like the ACLU and NAACP.

According to their research:

•  While the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners. We now lead the world with 2.2 million in prisons or jails. Our prison population has gone up by 500 percent over the last 30 years.

•  The federal prison population has increased by nearly 800 percent over the last few decades. Of these, 60 percent are nonviolent offenders.

•  Taxpayers are paying $80 billion per year to pay for this. And the costs are rising.

•  Between 70 million and 100 million Americans — nearly one out of three — has some kind of criminal record, “which carries lifelong barriers that can block successful re-entry and participation in society because of restrictions on employment, housing and voting. Mass incarceration contributes to a cycle of poverty that traps individuals, families and entire communities for generations.”

•  People who have been incarcerated typically earn 40 percent less per year than those who haven’t.

•  While drug abuse and crime occur across ethnic and socio-economic lines, punishments fall hardest on low-income communities and people of color. African-Americans are four times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans and more than 60 percent of the prison population now come from minority communities.

It’s pretty clear. The blind alley of mass incarceration doesn’t make us safer, but it has destroyed lives and families and sucked up resources urgently needed elsewhere. Millions of Americans now live under the burden of felony convictions, which has been called “social death,” a lifelong loss of rights and privileges, along with poor life chances for work, education, asset building and family life. Meanwhile, the drug epidemic continues unabated.

Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, we need to move forward based on evidence-based approaches that actually work to promote public safety, such as substance abuse treatment, community corrections for low-risk nonviolent offenders, validated risk and need assessments of offenders, and help with reentry to avoid recidivism.

Going backward is not an option.

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