In the overwhelming aftermath of both praise and partisan attacks on President Trump and his State of the Union address, Trump’s mention of prison reform in the speech seemed like more of an afterthought. The mention itself was rather short, with little more than a few sentences devoted to the topic:
“As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens. That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance,” Trump told Congress members and guests.
While most State of the Union addresses are filled with lofty rhetoric that all too often fails to deliver, Trump’s proposal, in its brevity, appears to focus on helping ex-cons obtain work opportunities once they leave prison.
Unfortunately, this will do nothing to change the fact that America incarcerates far more prisoners, both on a total number and per capita basis, than any other nation in the world:
By every measure the U.S. leads the world in prisoners, with 2.2 million people in jail and more than 4.8 million on parole. No nation tops that – not China with 1.7 million, not Russia with 670,000.
We not only have the highest number of prisoners, we have the highest percentage of people in prison or jail. In the U.S., 702 of every 100,000 people were in prison or jail in 2013. Cuba has 510 per 100,000 people in prison, Russia has 467, and Iran has 290.
The exponential increase in prisoners isn’t due solely to population growth in the US – it is due to the war on drugs. As the above chart details, as the war on drugs expanded in the 80s, so did the US prison population. As Drug War Facts articulates, the number and percentage of prisoners in US prisons is staggering:
“Forty-seven percent (81,900) of sentenced federal prisoners on September 30, 2016 (the most recent date for which federal offense data are available) were serving time for a drug offense (table 14; table 15).
“Among sentenced prisoners under the jurisdiction of state correctional authorities on December 31, 2015, 15% (197,200 prisoners) had been convicted of a drug offense as their most serious crime.”
The US Dept. of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that at yearend 2015, 1,298,159 people were serving sentences in state prisons in the US, of whom 197,200 (15.2% of the total) had as their most serious offence a drug charge: 44,700 for drug possession (3.4% of the total), and 152,500 for “other” drug offenses, including manufacturing and sale (11.7% of the total).
This data brings us to Free Market Shooter’s prison reform strategy:
The easiest way to reform prisons and markedly reduce the population of prisoners locked up in the US is to end the war on drugs, or at the very least, reduce the scope of enforcing the war on drugs.
While I am a proponent of “full decriminalization” of all federally controlled substances, I understand that this is outside the Overton Window and not politically feasible in this country. So I would propose a simpler solution – decriminalization of smaller amounts of drugs that do not constitute trafficking, manufacture or delivery of illegal drugs. If “harder” drugs such as cocaine or heroin cannot be included in this decriminalization, I would gladly accept marijuana and other less harmful drugs. (Note: The author does not use any drugs, legal or illegal, with the exception of infrequent alcohol consumption)
If you look at the data, it appears that this is not going to make much of a dent in the number of incarcerated individuals. However, it would be a meaningful “first step” towards ending the war on drugs, and ensuring that only the worst criminals are punished.
However, we should all hold our expectations low if this is what we are expecting of Trump’s proposed prison reform. Not only was it not mentioned at all in his speech, but it appears that Jeff Sessions is “on board” with Trump’s prison reform strategy:
The general counsel of Koch Industries reportedly said Attorney General Jeff Sessions “is totally on board” with the Trump administration’s plans to reform America’s prison system.
“I had a good discussion with him in a meeting at the White House a couple of weeks ago,” Mark Holden told CNN on Saturday.
“He believes in second chances. … So we’re going to meet people where they are. And hopefully we can get more success in this area when we show some success with prison reform.”
Lest you forget, this author has exposed Sessions’ naivete on marijuana:
And, in case you weren’t aware, this is the same Jeff Sessions who is on the record as being not only against medicinal marijuana, it is the same Jeff Sessions that has stated that marijuana is only slightly less awful than heroin:
And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.
Sessions is a major advocate not only of the expansion of private prisons, but of expansion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions (and by proxy, the expansion of the overall prison population):
And if you think this has nothing to do with the war on drugs, think again:
Sessions has long been a leading advocate for vigorous enforcement of harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws that have exacerbated mass incarceration. As a federal prosecutor in Alabama, the Brennan Center for Justice found that 40 percent of his convictions were for drug related crimes, double the rate of other Alabama federal prosecutors.
For meaningful prison reform (and criminal justice reform) to be effective, a focus on reducing the size and scope of the drug war must be of paramount importance….