Recently, a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law found that 39% of prisoners shouldn’t be behind bars. Considering there are 2.2 million individuals in prison today, many believe we are in crisis and that this mass incarceration is no doubt the greatest racial and moral injustice of our time.
In ‘How Many Americans are Unnecessarily Incarcerated,’ a report released by the Brennan Center for Justice, it was determined that 576,000 inmates (39%) in prisons across the nation could be released without putting public safety at risk; this would substantially reduce prison population, not to mention removing individuals who should never have been sentenced to prison to begin with. The report is the culmination of three years of study, research, and analysis performed by a team of lawyers, statistical researchers, and criminologists regarding convictions, criminal codes, and sentences.
What would be the impact of releasing more than half a million prisoners from our nation’s prison system? According to the report, it could result in hundreds of thousands of new jobs considering the annual savings of about $20 billion dollars.
Part of the problem is that many offenders considered non-violent such as drug offenders or those who commit low level crimes would be better served and even become productive members of society by being placed on probation, performing community service, or even being treated for issues such as drug addiction or mental illness rather than punished.
Ironically, while the overall crime rate today has dropped to half of what it was 25 years ago, prisons are more overpopulated than ever before. Between 1960 and 1980, violent crime exploded with Latino and African Americans becoming the primary victims. Our government, both at the state and federal levels, responded to this soar in violent crime by creating new laws and longer sentences for some crimes. Punishment for drug violations and low-level offenders became harsher, resulting in more people being swept into the prison system who perhaps should have had alternatives to incarceration. Considering countless new criminal laws that have been put into place and policies regarding mandatory minimum sentences for some more serious offenses, the prison population has gotten completely out of hand today.
Criminal defense attorneys have long known that for certain offenders, being incarcerated in prison accomplishes nothing and in fact often results in those offenders continuing on with a life of crime following their release. What can or should be done, and should lawmakers rethink sentencing in our country?