Mass Incarceration

  • July 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations, Washington Office

    *This post originally appeared on Open Society Voices

    President Obama changed 46 lives on Monday, commuting the prison terms of individuals who had been locked away serving long sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses. “These men and women were not hardened criminals. But the overwhelming majority of them had been sentenced to at least 20 years—14 of them had been sentenced to life—for nonviolent drug offenses,” the president said in making the announcement. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime. And if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”

    I enthusiastically applaud the president’s announcement, as I did with his two prior batches of releases. For more than 20 years now, I have been pushing, along with many other champions of criminal justice change, for reform of the egregiously lengthy sentences for crack cocaine offenses—sentences which were unjust, inconsistently applied, and racially discriminatory.

    I was aware of the use of the executive clemency power to close painful chapters in history, which presidents of both parties have courageously used. John F. Kennedy quietly issued commutations to people given mandatory minimum sentences under the 1956 Narcotics Control Act, widely seen as unnecessarily harsh during his administration. Gerald Ford used his authority to create an executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War, 90 percent of which were granted.

    President Obama’s commutations this week allow dozens more worthy candidates, many of whom thought they would never again see the light of day, the opportunity to have a second chance. This is phenomenal. But we as a country need to go further, and release the broadest spectrum of prisoners possible without compromising public safety.

  • May 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nicole Fortier, counsel, Brennan Center for Justice

    It’s well known today that the United States is the biggest incarcerator in the world. With five percent of the world’s population, we house nearly a quarter of its prisoners. That’s over two million Americans behind bars. The number of people we imprison has increased over 400 percent since 1980. But in that time the federal prison population grew over 700 percent. Today, it has 208,609 inmates housed within its walls – more than any individual state.  The country now spends $80 billion per year on state and federal corrections.

    This dramatic growth was no accident. It was the direct result of laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s by policymakers hoping to combat rising crime rates. Their solution: over-criminalize and over-punish behavior – particularly at the national level. They expanded federal criminal laws, increased penalties, removed sentencing discretion from judges, and encouraged states to do the same.

    It’s clear that together, these laws cast too wide of a net. But it is important to dig further to understand whom they caught in that net. Exploring the demographics of those in federal prison can help us understand the real consequences of these policy decisions.

  • May 12, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Geoffrey R. Stone considers in The Huffington Post what the Supreme Court will look like in 2025.

    In The New YorkerJeffrey Toobin looks at an experiment in Milwaukee aimed at reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. 

    At Bloomberg View, Noah Feldman explores the recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that one of the NSA’s surveillance programs is unlawful.

    Robert J. Smith and Charles J. Ogletree Jr. discuss at The Washington Post the latest death penalty challenge before the Supreme Court.

    Kenneth Jost writes at Jost on Justice that “religious liberty has become the last refuge of those who oppose marriage for gay and lesbian couples.”

    Audie Cornish and Linda Blumberg examine at NPR how a Supreme Court ruling against the Affordable Care Act would hurt low and middle income workers the most.

  • May 11, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    At Jacobin, Alex Elkins investigates the origins of racist policing practices such as stop-and-frisk in urban America.

    Andrew Cohen writes at The Marshall Project that a new project shows that cost of holding elderly prisoners is incredibly high. 

    Thom Hartmann takes a look at how the privatization of prisons contributed to mass incarceration at Salon

    At Vox​, Ezra Klein ​considers how the United States is failing to support mothers on a variety of issues.

    Peter Beinhart argues in The Atlantic ​that reporters should hold major political donors to the same level scrutiny as the candidates. 

  • February 26, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Matt Ford considers at The Atlantic whether a new bipartisan coalition can help end mass incarceration.

    Elizabeth Warren argues in The Washington Post against the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a “massive free-trade agreement with Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore and seven other countries.”

    In the ABA Journal, Erwin Chemerinsky writes about King v. Burwell, arguing that the “case is about life and death in determining whether millions of people will still have health insurance and access to health care.”

    Brianne Gorod explains at the blog for the Constitutional Accountability Center that the government’s loss in Yates v. United States on Wednesday may signal good news for the future King v. Burwell decision.

    Jamelle Bouie of Slate discusses new efforts to restrict voting in various states and why the United States needs a constitutional right-to-vote amendment.