Normative Narratives

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Economic Outlook: Executive Orders and Prison Reform

People in Prisons and Jails for Drug Offenses

The “Prisoners Paradox“–the idea that longer prison sentences, as opposed to their stated goal of deterring crime, actually perpetuate a criminal culture, has been a recurring theme here at Normative Narratives.

Their are undeniably certain instances where criminals pose a danger to society and must be kept behind bars. However, since stricter drug laws were enacted in the 1980s, U.S. prisons have filled up with largely non-violent offenders.

Keeping people in prison has obvious direct costs (as of 2010, the average cost for an inmate in a state prison was $31,246/yr; federal inmate was $28,284). According to the ACLU, with only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population. In America, Prison is big business.

Further perpetuating this Prison-Industrial Complex is a plea-ultimatum offered to those accused of drug related crimes. According to a Human Rights Watch report, many drug offenders are “coerced” into a plead guilty to a crime, under threat of a harsher punishment if the case goes to trial:

Federal prosecutors routinely threaten extraordinarily severe prison sentences to coerce drug defendants into waiving their right to trial and pleading guilty, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In the rare cases in which defendants insist on going to trial, prosecutors make good on their threats. Federal drug offenders convicted after trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain, according to new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch.

Prosecutors favor mandatory sentences because they enhance their leverage not only to get convictions via pleas, but to get defendants to cooperate with the government in the prosecution of others in exchange for a lower sentence.

“Going to trial is a right, not a crime,” Fellner said. “But defendants are punished with longer sentences for exercising that right.”

“Independent federal judges who have no personal or institutional stake in the outcome should have the final say over sentencing,” Fellner said. “Judges should have the discretion to ensure that defendants in drug cases receive sentences proportionate to their crimes, not their willingness to plead guilty.”

Of more interest to social scientists–and at the core of the “Prisoners Paradox”–are the social and communal effects of incarceration. Incarceration causes skills to atrophy and carries a social stigma; many ex-cons cannot find honest work and end up back in jail. Incarceration robs children of a parent. Children growing up in single-parent households are much more susceptible to a wide array of social issues.

One could not watch President Obama’s State of the Union address this Tuesday without hearing about “Executive Orders”. One example of an Executive Order which could have profound fiscal and socioeconomic benefits would be clemency for non-violent drug offenders:

 The Obama administration, in its effort to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases, is taking the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early.

Speaking at a New York State Bar Association event Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the Justice Department wanted to send more names to White House for clemency consideration.

“This is where you can help,” he said, in remarks the Justice Department circulated in advance.

Prison officials will also spread the word among inmates that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders might be eligible to apply for clemency.

The clemency drive is part of the administration’s effort to undo sentencing discrepancies that began during the crack epidemic decades ago.

“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Mr. Cole said. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

Testifying on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Bureau of Prisons now eats up 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget, which strains the department’s ability to do other law enforcement missions.

Last August, Attorney General Eric Holder urged judges to consider less harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenders going forward. The clemency push is an important retroactive decision, which can ensure those who committed a crime “at the wrong time” don’t continue to face indefensibly long prison sentences.

One can already hear the criticisms now; President Obama, friend of the criminal! President Obama, defender of the lazy drug user! However, many people convicted of drug-related offenses experience injustice throughout the criminal justice system–from arrest, to trial, to sentencing. Letting criminals out of jail will not solve all of our problems. However, keeping people unjustly locked up for long periods of time has certainly perpetuated lingering socio-racial issues in America.

Clemency is not meant to undermine personal accountability; people need to suffer negative consequences for socially unacceptable behavior or there is way of deterring such behavior. What clemency and a reworked criminal justice system can accomplish is proportionality–ensuring that once someone “has learned their lesson”, they do not remain incarcerated to the detriment of all involved (except, I suppose, those who run the prison).

If there is a policy that will reduce the governments prison bill and may reduce future dependence on government welfare spending–without compromising the security of law abiding Americans–do we not owe it to ourselves as a country to pursue such a policy?