It is recognized that many prisons in the United States are overcrowded and do not rehabilitate inmates. The use of mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders has helped create the world’s largest prison population. The excessive imprisonment of nonviolent offenders is part of a national problem–exploding costs for state and federal prison budgets. A common sense approach to both problems, sentencing and prison overcrowding, would reduce recidivism and save money. The following article reported the latest legislative efforts at combating the problem of prison overcrowding.
Thirty years ago, the National Association of Evangelicals adopted a policy statement condemning America’s overcrowded and non-rehabilitative prisons. We recognized the need to punish offenders and incarcerate dangerous criminals but noted that “half of those in prison have been convicted of non-violent offenses.” For these offenders, we recommended biblically-based sanctions like restitution “as an alternative or supplement to incarceration.” We also opposed excessive incarceration due to its high expense and because it undermines rehabilitation.
Looking back three decades later, it is remarkable how true our statement remains, and how little policymakers have done to improve the situation in our prisons.
Today, the United States has the world’s largest prison population. The get-tough crime policies of the 1980s, and especially the increased use of mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, have filled state and federal prisons to well beyond their capacities. Ballooning corrections budgets have started chewing up funds for education, infrastructure and health care. States across the country have responded and saved their taxpayers money by adopting evidence-based programming like drug courts for addicted offenders and stricter probation programs like Hawaii’s HOPE program to reduce incarceration rates. States as varied as South Carolina, Rhode Island, Delaware, Georgia, and California have repealed or narrowed mandatory minimum laws or created exceptions, known as “safety valves,” to give judges some flexibility when the mandatory sentence leads to absurd or unjust results.
But the federal government lags far behind. The federal prison system is at 140 percent of its capacity; half of its 218,000 offenders are serving time for a drug offense. A recent Congressional Research Service report blamed the overcrowding largely on mandatory minimum sentences, which send people to prison for decades whether they deserve it or not. The federal Bureau of Prisons budget is $6.8 billion – a full quarter of all the money the Justice Department is allotted to fight crime and keep us safe. The answer isn’t more money (there isn’t any) or more prisons. The answer is better policies that save us money while protecting public safety.
Representatives Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) have proposed just such a solution. Their Justice Safety Valve Act, like its identical Senate counterpart introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would give judges permission to sentence people below the mandatory minimum prison term if that sentence fails to serve the goals of punishment. For example, if we can be kept safe by giving a low-level, nonviolent drug offender eight years in prison instead of the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, the new bill would permit the judge to do so. Those cost-savings could be used for crime-fighting grants or recidivism-reducing programs. That prison bed could be reserved for truly dangerous and violent offenders like those who recently bombed Boston.
The bill also recognizes that mandatory minimum sentences sometimes produce absurd or simply unfair results, as in the case of a young woman named Mandy Martinson. Mandy became addicted to methamphetamine after she left an abusive relationship. She found a new boyfriend who was kind to her and sold the drugs she craved. He kept handguns (which Mandy never used) and drugs in her home. When police arrested him, Mandy was held accountable for the drugs and guns, which triggered a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for her. The judge thought Mandy deserved a 10-year punishment. She was, after all, a first-time offender who started receiving drug treatment and was on her way to sobriety before she was even sentenced. And Mandy’s boyfriend, who had a prior drug conviction, received only a 12-year sentence, because he had valuable information to trade to prosecutors in exchange for a shorter term. Mandy had no such information, and the judge had no choice. He was required to give Mandy 15 years in prison, despite his conviction that she was not a threat to public safety or likely to re-offend.
The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow judges like Mandy’s to save expensive prison beds for people who really deserve them. The bill would ease prison overcrowding, increasing the odds that offenders are rehabilitated behind bars and don’t re-offend when they return to our communities. Enacting the bill would move us one step closer to the National Association of Evangelical’s vision of a world where punishment keeps us safe, rehabilitates, and is a wise use of our tax revenue.