Last week, the U.S. Senate introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan bill that aims to reform a part of the criminal justice system. A similar proposal — the Safe Justice Act — was made by the House of Representatives in June, but a bill introduced by an arguably more powerful legislative entity like the Senate displays the necessity that law shifts from a punitive to a more compassionate approach. This bill would make small but significant changes to a broken system that has brought unnecessary pain to thousands of lives, specifically in cases of nonviolent and drug offenses.
Both the House and Senate proposals suggest moving away from the “tough on crime” attitude that caught wind in the 1970s and ‘80s in response to the War on Drugs, and begin to refocus the judiciary’s attention on rehabilitation and re-entry to impede recidivism.
While the House’s bill is further along in the legislative process, the Senate proposes the judiciary system make cuts to mandatory minimums and reduce sentences of those currently serving time for drug offenses. Mandatory minimums prevent judges from sentencing individuals on a case-by-case basis, so no matter what the circumstances are, the judge is required to sentence an offender.
Federal law currently states the minimum sentence for someone in possession of any amount of marijuana is up to a year in prison and a $1000 fine. If caught three times, a person could be charged with a felony facing a minimum of three years in prison and a $5000 fine.
According to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, giving people drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration “achieved significant results in reducing recidivism and drug use, increased the likelihood of finding employment, and saved money over the cost incarceration.”
For every $1 spent on substance abuse treatment, $7 is saved, according to a report from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The harsh punishments attached to these nonviolent, drug-related crimes are overpopulating prisons, costing taxpayers more than double what it would take to send individuals to substance abuse treatment. Above all, they are inhumane.
This federal shift is a welcome relief from the 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act, which transferred felony offenders from state prisons to county jails. As California prisons continue to reach capacity, jails — like the one operated by Santa Cruz County — are taking in the people prison walls can no longer hold.
Jails are not meant for long-term incarceration and do not have sufficient resources for the people there. Within three years, seven inmates have died in Santa Cruz County Jail, due to inadequate medical care provided by a for-profit medical group, California Forensic Medical Group. It currently provides its services to 27 counties and 64 jails in California, and is at the center of several lawsuits.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will ensure that individuals receive fairer, more proportional sentences and limit solitary confinement for juvenile offenders.
Getting an education has been found to significantly curtail recidivism and the Senate’s new bill offers incarcerated individuals the opportunity to take classes in exchange for a reduced sentence upon graduation.
The proposals envision a hopeful future, but they are not an overall solution to this pervasively broken legal system. The reduction of mandatory minimums is a step toward justice, but we must keep in mind we have a much longer path to walk.