The federal prison system holds thousands of inmates who probably don't need to be there, either because they received unduly long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses committed decades ago, or because they're now simply too old to represent much of a threat (crime being overwhelmingly a young man's game). The U.S. locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other country, despite the facts that it hasn't made us any safer, and the costs, both economic and social, have been enormous. That's why the Justice Department's announcement this week that it will release about 6,000 inmates later this month represents a long overdue step toward redressing what increasingly has come to be regarded as a shameful miscarriage of justice.
The prisoner release, the largest in U.S. history, aims to reduce overcrowding in the nation's prisons and roll back some of the worst effects of the harsh mandatory sentencing laws of the 1980s and '90s. During that era, the punishment for possession of crack cocaine, which was sold primarily in African-American neighborhoods, was 20 times greater than that for possessing powder cocaine, which was consumed mostly by whites. The disparity in sentencing policies had a devastating effect on minority communities already ravaged by high unemployment, crime and drug addiction. But sending large numbers of people away for long prison terms had little effect on those problems and may even have made them worse.
In recent years a growing bipartisan consensus has developed that the mass incarceration policies and harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines of that era have not had much success in driving down crime rates. What they have done is create a large class of people who have spent so much time behind bars that it becomes almost impossible for them to readjust to the world, find jobs or become productive members of society when they get out of prison. The failure of mass incarceration and imprisonment policies has become so obvious that it is now one of the few important policy issues on which both Democratic and Republican lawmakers can agree.
That consensus is backed up by research. As former Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein wrote earlier this year in a Sun op-ed, criminal careers generally are short, lasting no more than five to 10 years: Most offenders are relatively young but they "age out" of illegal activity by the time they reach middle age. As a practical matter, that means keeping people locked up into their 40s, 50s and 60s actually does little to prevent crime because all but the most hardened career criminals are no longer likely to reoffend. At the same time, the cost to society of imprisoning large numbers of people soars as inmates age: Health care alone for prisoners is now some $4 billion annually.
The new Justice Department policy will allow judges to consider granting clemency for inmates convicted and sentenced under the old mandatory sentencing rules who already have served at least 10 years in prison, have no history of violence or significant criminal record, and who would have received a lower sentence under current guidelines than those in force when they were convicted. About a third of the inmates the department plans to release are undocumented immigrants whose crimes were so serious that they will be deported back to their home countries as soon as they get out.
The Obama administration is taking the lead on this issue, but ultimately Congress will have to address comprehensive reform of the sentencing laws to make a dent in the problem. President Obama has shown that it's possible to begin driving down the number of people behind bars who don't need to be there while at the same time saving billions of dollars that could be better spent on assisting former inmates to successfully re-enter their communities through halfway houses, educational and vocational training programs and other targeted services. Locking people up and throwing away the key hasn't worked. The far better alternative is a rehabilitative corrections policy that makes sense in terms of both social justice and public safety.