In observance of International Human Rights Day, we have decided to look at the U.S. incarceration rate. Human rights groups often criticize the United States for having the largest prison population in the world. They argue that U.S. courtrooms consistently hand out disproportionately long sentences for non-violent crime. After 30 years of get-tough-on-crime policies, both conservatives and liberals are beginning to agree it is time for reform.
In April of 1998, twins Laurence and Lamont Garrison were convicted of cocaine distribution. Under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, which bypass a judge’s discretion, they served 12 and 14 years in prison. Experts say a typical judge would have given them less than five years.
To this day, Lamont Garrison maintains their innocence.
“And they said, O.K. Mr. Garrison this is your oportunity to help yourself," he said. "And I said uh, help myself how? You know what do you mean? Well you know what this is about, you guys were doing wrong, XYZ, you got to tell us what you are doing. Well, I said I wasn’t doing anything wrong, so there is nothing to talk about.”
Human rights organizations have often criticized the U.S. for ignoring the basic principles of justice and rendering disproportionately severe punishment.
“The incarceration rates started to go up in the 1970s, but they really took off in the 1980s with the start of the tough on crime movement - mandatory sentencing," said Marc Maur, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "Basically, a political initiative to send more people to prison and keep them there for longer periods of time.”
The intention was to target violent criminals. But tough sentencing guidelines began to creep into non-violent, often drug related, offenses.
Thirty years later, the incarceration rate has increased 500 percent. The more than two million people now incarcerated in the U.S. make up the largest prison population in the world. Maur says long prison sentences send ripple effects through society.
“When a person is sent off to prison, it is not just that person that is affected, but his or her family," he said. "So, at the very least, the children have the psychological loss of a parent who is behind bars - the shame, the stigma that often goes along with that.”
The collateral effect has triggered bipartisan calls for reform.
“Conservatives said what can we do to improve this, and one of the things they thought of, well you know, if we don’t impose criminal records, or long protracted jail sentences on people who are not violent felons, whose crimes are minimal damage to society, then perhaps we will have better family formation,” said Michael Barone, who is with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“It is going to be a slow development," Mark Maur said. "You can pass mandatory sentencing in 20 minutes, but it sometimes takes 20 years to undo the harm that has been done.”
There is a bipartisan movement in Congress to reduce mandatory sentences. But that will be left up to the Republican-controlled House and Senate in the next session.