At least we know we're free. Well 75% of us anyway

At least we know we're free. Well 75% of us anyway

by digby

Things are certainly crazy right now, but I'm sure that some of you remember just how crazy ... and sick ... the "law and order" craze was back in the 80s and 90s. We were pretty much obsessed with the idea of "super-predators" who had been bred to stalk and kill us all in our beds just for the fun of it. And the only way we could stop it was to arrest people on petty charges and throw them in jail for as long as possible before they ... stalked and killed us all in our beds.

It was an ugly chapter. However, things might just be changing. First we have the fact that capital punishment seems to be at least open for debate, with a Democratic Governor (and presidential hopeful) from Maryland signing a bill to ban it just last week. And now this:

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill Wednesday designed to give relief to the nation's bloated prison system by offering judges leeway to consider sentences below the mandatory minimum for all federal crimes.

The bill, named the Justice Safety Valve Act, would expand a current provision in sentencing law, authorizing judges to hand down less harsh sentences if they determine doing so would not jeopardize public safety. Under current law, only certain nonviolent, low-level, first-time drug offenses are subject to sentencing below the federal mandatory minimum[...]

In an op-ed in The Hill on Wednesday, Julie Stewart, founder and president of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, both hailed the Justice Safety Valve Act as a "common sense" measure that would save money and help ensure that the "time fits the crime in every criminal case." Their column offered some data on prison capacity and overcrowding:

According to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, the number of inmates under the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) jurisdiction has increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012. BOP prisons are operating at 38 percent over capacity, endangering the safety of guards and inmates alike. Last week, the Inspector General for the Department of Justice testified that it’s only going to get worse: the BOP projects system-wide crowding to exceed 45 percent over rated capacity through 2018.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, met the legislation with similar approval.

"Our justice system’s overreliance on mandatory minimum sentencing is a major reason our prison system incarcerates more people than any other industrialized nation in the world, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Brown," he said in a statement. "In fact, our overcrowded prisons are almost entirely the result of the mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, who make up nearly half of all federal offenders, not violent criminals."

Now there's some budget cutting that makes sense. Locking up petty criminals for long prison terms is expensive. And unjust. Let's stop doing that and use the money for something worthwhile. And maybe we could change this shocking statistic:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London.

China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China's extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)

San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.

The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England's rate is 151; Germany's is 88; and Japan's is 63.

The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.