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Beginning in the mid-1970s, the prison system in America has had a high rate of expansion in terms of inmates. Since the 1970's there has been an unprecedented increase in American incarceration rates. Today, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. accounts for approximately 25% of the global prison population, despite possessing less than 5% of the world's population. This is especially due to the U.S. adopting three-strikes and extensive mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. These rapid changes in the United States correctional population pose serious questions concerning the criminal justice system. In a valiant attempt to clean our streets of crime, criminals are put away into prisons. The ideology behind prison is for the protection of society, prevention of crime, retribution and rehabilitation, punishment as a deterrent for committing future crimes, and reintegration. It was a belief that those incarcerated would learn their mistakes, repent and rejoin societies as better people. Instead, what happened was the criminal justice system developed into a breeding ground for putting people away. People today are sent to institutions that simply can't accommodate the masses of people being incarcerated each and every year, and as a result, our prison facilities have become grossly overcrowded, most of which harbor poor minority races.
At the start of the 1970s, the "War on Drugs" idea swept the country. Crack cocaine was cheap, which made it the top choice in poverty stricken areas such as the inner cities, popularly known as the ghetto. The main residents in these areas were African American men and a high number of those incarcerated were African Americans. When they were arrested, they were typically given the maximum sentence and many were charged with intent to sell, regardless of the amount of drugs they possessed. The "War on drugs" policies focused policing and prosecution efforts and resources on drug offenses and increased sanctions for those crimes. Increased prison bed space allowed the courts to sentence offenders to prison and adult probation and the parole board to return offenders to prison for a violation rather than use other alternative sanctions and programs. Since 1990, the U.S. prison population, already the world's largest, has almost doubled. The number of Black men in prison has grown five times the rate it was twenty years ago. In 1989 the number of Black prisoners surpassed the number of Whites prisoners. By 2003, some 832,400 Black Americans were in the nation's prisons and jail system compared to 665,100 Whites and 363,900 Hispanic males, ultimately portraying an overrepresentation of African-Americans and minorities in the criminal justice system.
Today, African Americans account for 12 percent of the U.S. population, though an estimated 38.9 percent of all prisoners in the U.S. are African American. In the late 1990s about 9 percent of the total black population in the U.S. was under correctional supervision compared to 2 percent of the White adult population. Some 33 percent of the African American male population between twenty and twenty-nine years of age were either in prison, jail, or on probation or parole. In 1998, over half of the drug offenses represented was African Americans. In 2002 blacks made up 40% of the jail inmate population; Hispanics, 19%; and whites, 36%. (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005). In each year, about 6 in 10 jail inmates are racial or ethnic minorities.
Contributing factors to this phenomenon, is that in 1986 Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. These laws force judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of other mitigating factors. The first law of this kind took place in 1952, when the Boggs Act or Narcotics Control Act made a first time cannabis possession offense a minimum of two to ten years imprisonment with a fine of up to $20,000. However, in 1970, Congress repealed mandatory penalties for cannabis offenses.
Before the advent of mandatory minimum sentences, federal judges had a vast amount of discretion to impose whatever sentenced they felt was appropriate in their personal view, up to the statutory maximum. Because individual judges differ widely in their personal views about crime and sentencing, the sentences they imposed for similar offenses by similar defendants varied widely. What some judges treated as serious offenses, and punished accordingly, others minimized with much more lenient sentences. Such disparities developed into problematic issues in sentencing procedures and were seen as inherently unfair. Such inconsistencies were discussed by policymakers and welcomed by drug dealers, since it meant they could hope for a light sentence for serious drug crimes. The view was that drug dealers seldom view the risk as too high when they see reason to hope for a light sentence. In response to that attitude which threatened the public, Congress sent a clear message to drug dealers that no matter who the judge is, "serious crime will get you serious time."
Aggressive "tough on crime" approaches by the legislature and the criminal justice system allows the criminal justice system to narrow its use of discretion and take more conservative and less controversial approaches to punishment. These policies have generally been supported, as the general assembly has increasingly supported more punitive responses to crime, making alternative, diversionary, and intermediate sanctions less appealing and viewed as "soft on crime" approaches.
At a Federal level, all Unites States federal courts across the nation are guided by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on three factors: the type of drug, weight of the drug mixture, and the number of prior convictions. The intent was to provide determinate sentencing. Determinate sentencing is a fixed period of incarceration without the possibility of parole. The development of determinate sentencing has been the development of sentencing guidelines to control the structure and process and make it more rational. These guidelines were designed to eliminate judicial discretion and get tough on crime. Judges are unable to consider other important factors such as the offender's role, motivation, and the likelihood of recidivism.
"In the federal system, there are two levels of mandatory minimums, with each level doubling for defendants with prior convictions. The first tier requires a minimum sentence of imprisonment for five years (10 with a prior felony drug conviction), and the second tier requires a minimum of 10 years (20 with one prior felony drug conviction, and mandatory life with two such prior convictions). Of that, defendants can receive a reduction in the time they serve in prison of only 54 days per year as a reward for "good behavior," which means they must actually serve about 85% of their sentences. For a prior drug offense to be considered a felony, it must be punishable by more than one year. In the federal system and most states, a drug offense is rarely classified as a felony unless it involves distribution of the drugs involved, or an intent to do so. For most practical purposes, therefore, a prior felony conviction for a drug such as marijuana can be read to mean a prior conviction for distribution. And, since most small distribution cases are reduced to misdemeanor simple possession (personal use) charges as part of plea bargains, especially for first-time offenders, a prior felony drug conviction for a drug such as marijuana usually means the prior conviction either involved a substantial amount of the drug or a repeat offender undeserving of another such break (Risley)."
The U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Department of Justice have both concluded that mandatory sentencing fails to deter crime. Furthermore, mandatory minimums have worsened racial and gender disparities and have contributed greatly toward prison overcrowding. Mandatory sentences are responsible for sending record numbers of women and people of color to prison.
Those who support mandatory sentencing believe that it reduces crime, it is fair for criminals, and ensures uniformity in sentencing. Potential criminals and offenders are more expected to avoid crime being they can be certain of their sentence if they are caught. Opponents of mandatory sentencing point to studies that show criminals are more deterred by the increased chance of their being caught and convicted, rather than increasing the sentence.
Another policy that has contributed to the prison overcrowding problem and overrepresentation of minorities in our criminal justice system is the three strikes laws. Three strikes laws are statutes enacted by state governments in the United States which require the state courts to hand down a mandatory and extended period of incarceration to persons who have been convicted of a serious criminal offense on three or more separate occasions. The Three Strikes law significantly increases the prison sentences of persons convicted of felonies who have been previously convicted of a violent crime or serious felony, and limits the ability of these offenders to receive a punishment other than a prison sentence.
According to the Justice Department report released in July 2003, the U.S. prison population surpassed 2 million for the first time. Since 1990, the U.S. prison population, already the world's largest, has almost doubled. According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute in 2002, the number of Black men in prison has grown five times the rate it was twenty years ago. Today, more African-American men are in jail than in college. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2003), an African-American boy born in 2001 faced a 32 percent chance of being imprisoned at some point in his life, compared to a 17 percent likelihood for a Hispanic boy and a 6 percent likelihood for a white boy. U.S. incarceration rates by race, in June 30, 2006 were 409 Whites per 100,000 White persons, 1,038 Latinos per 100,000 Latino persons and 2,468 Blacks per 100,000 Black persons. Looking at just the males by race and the incarceration rates become even more frightening. In June 30, 2006 were 736 White males per 100,000, 1,862 Latino males per 100,000, 4,789 Black males per 100,000. If you look at males aged 25-29 and by race, you can see what is going on even clearer. In June 30, 2006 there were 1,685 White males ages 25-29 per 100,000, 3,912 Latino males ages 25-29 per 100,000, 11,695 Black males ages 25-29 per 100,000.
"There is irrefutable evidence that racial minorities comprise a disproportionate share of the U.S. prison population. At the end of 2004, there were 1.3 million persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons; 41 percent of these inmates were African American, 34 percent were white, and 19 percent were Hispanic (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005). The disparities are even more dramatic for males, and particularly for males in their twenties and thirties. The incarceration rates for African-American males in these age groups are seven to eight times higher than the rates for white males, and two-and-a-half to three times higher than the rates for Hispanic males. When these rates are expressed as percentages, they reveal that 8.4 percent of all African-American males age twenty-five to twenty-nine were in prison in 2004, compared to 2.5 percent of Hispanic males and 1.2 percent of white males in this age group. Although the absolute numbers are much smaller, the pattern for females is similar. The incarceration rate for African-American females was more than twice the rate for Hispanic females and four times the rate for white females."
"Getting people to recognize that there is a problem with overrepresentation of minorities in the system has been a major obstacle to doing anything about it," said James Coldren, president of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group based in Chicago. The bigger problem is with the social and economic disparities that exist in our society, which in turn lead to disparities in the criminal justice system. "If you really want to address disparity, you really have to look beyond the criminal justice system. You have to look at the risk factors. This isn't a problem that's just a criminal justice problem," according to Authority Senior Research Analyst Phillip Stevenson.
Researchers have found that African Americans have the highest risk factors, with greater exposure to poverty, family violence and education. African Americans and Hispanics were much more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug offenses. 27 percent of the Hispanics and 25 percent of the African Americans were imprisoned for drug offenses, compared to only 15 percent of the whites (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005).
From 1990 to 1998, increases in drug offenders accounted for 25 percent of the total growth among African-American inmates, 18 percent of the growth among Hispanic inmates, and 12 percent of the growth among white inmates (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000). Data collected on prison rates by ethnicity at key decision points in the system is vital to efforts aimed at reducing disproportionate minority representation. It is the first step in identifying a problem and creating a strategy to bring change. Reform on drug policy and laws such as getting rid of mandatory sentences, lessening punishment for drug related offenses and getting rid of three-strike policies can greatly contribute to the issue of prison overcrowding.
Other findings regarding the causes of prison overcrowding point to the continued increase in the number of offenders sent to prison, high recidivism rates, high rates of offenders returning to prison for violating or unsuccessfully completing community supervision, new criminal offenses added to the penal code, the "War on drugs," harsher penalties for certain types of offenses, increased role of victim and victim advocacy in the court and parole process, convicted inmates serving a greater portion of their sentences in prison, a shift from indeterminate to determinate sentences causing the average minimum sentences to increase, elimination of "good time," and "truth in sentencing" which established time-served standards for parole eligibility and required 100 percent of court-imposed sentences to be served either in prison or on parole.
In regards to prison overcrowding, more than 80 percent of the increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995 is due to drug convictions. Regarding racial injustice, in 1986, the year Congress enacted federal mandatory drug sentences; the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher. Regarding women, between 1986 and 1996, the number of women in prison for drug law violations increased by 421 percent.
Prison overcrowding impacts all criminal justice agencies. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing, along with three-strike policies, the Department of Corrections lack both a sufficient number of beds to house total inmate population and an adequate system of high security beds to manage high-risk population. The number of inmates released from prison to community supervision or parole has dramatically decreased. Convicted inmates are remaining incarcerated for a greater portion of their court-imposed prison sentence. The court has not significantly changed its sentencing practices in imposing prison terms, but recently there has been an increase in the number of sentences of between five to ten years and a decrease in sentences of one year or less. Violent crimes generally receive the longest prison sentences, and drug offenses are the next longest. Any increase in sentence length multiplied by the thousands of offenders sent to prison results in a sizable increase in the incarcerated population.
There is no debating the fact that there is a vast increase of prison population each year, and the overwhelming majority of prison populations nationwide are disproportionately composed of black males. Prison is a life altering experience that prisoners share with their families and friends alike. Attempts to improve quality of life made by prisoners returning to society after lengthy prison terms are often met with intense resistance. It has also been concluded that mandatory sentencing fails to deter crime. Furthermore, mandatory minimums have worsened racial and gender disparities and have contributed greatly toward prison overcrowding. Mandatory sentences are responsible for sending record numbers of minorities to prison and should be subjected to reconsideration by the legislature and policy makers within our society. Mandatory minimums and three strikes policies for non-violent crimes only worsen the overcrowding problem and overrepresentation of minorities within our criminal justice system. These policies are not effective or efficient policies and should be reconsidered. Getting rid of these ineffective policies can ultimately reduce the prison population and we can then focus our attention and efforts on the more violent population within our prisons and within our society. The abolishing of these policies will also address the issue of minorities being overrepresented within our criminal justice system. Those with drug problems and offenses can be given and directed to more rehabilitative institutions, rather than having these individuals put into prisons. Mandatory minimum policies are gravely misleading and its deterrent properties have been scrutinized and subject to debate. These policies have costly repercussions to tax payers, minorities, many families, and our community as a whole. These policies need to be changed and reconsidered.