At the federal level, efforts at criminal justice reform have been trapped in a legislative logjam. Despite considerable bipartisan consensus on the subject – including the backing of the notorious Koch brothers, who fund Republican candidates across the country – no significant legislation has passed through the United States Congress. That, despite the fact that the United States currently houses 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails. That translates to an incarceration rate of 693 per 100,000 people – a rate far in excess of Iran, Zimbabwe, and Singapore. A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that 576,000 people who are currently incarcerated could be freed with little-to-no impact on public safety, at a savings of $20 billion annually. According to the report, 364,000 prisoners could be subject to alternatives to incarceration – treatment, community service, or probation – while another 212,000 have already served lengthy prison terms and could be directly released into the community.
At the federal level, the only steps to remedy the effects of our draconian system have come from the executive branch. Attorneys General Holder and Lynch have told their line prosecutors to pursue fewer mandatory minimum sentences, and Holder urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to apply a recent reduction in drug sentences retroactively to reduce the sentences of thousands of those currently incarcerated. In addition, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,176 prisoners and issued 148 pardons – far more than any other president in history. But even those historic numbers are a mere drop in the proverbial bucket. With a federal prison population of 190,058 inmates, Obama’s clemency numbers constitute about 0.6% of that group. Those numbers will likely increase a bit before January 20th, but executive clemency is a poor substitute for true legislative reform. Continue reading