Our nation currently spends an estimated $80 billion on corrections. That’s a high price tag—particularly when you look closely at who is filling our nation’s prisons and jails. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that 1 in 5 incarcerated people have been convicted of a drug offense. Data also shows that people convicted of property and public order crimes make up nearly a third of state prison populations. This means that we are spending a good deal of money locking up people who we’re mad at, but pose no serious threat to public safety.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences:
Outdated mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been the key driver of our nation’s ballooning prison population, particularly with regard to non-violent drug crimes. Such laws rob judges of their discretion and force them to use one-size-fits-all penalties with no regard for the circumstances surrounding a crime, a perpetrator’s threat to public safety or their potential for rehabilitation.
State prisons—where the majority of the nation’s prison population is incarcerated—have taken steps towards change. At one time, all 50 states had mandatory minimums of some kind. By 2000, that number dropped to 36. In the years since at least 29 states have further expanded judicial discretion or amended mandatory minimums. From Georgia and Texas to California and New Jersey, a diverse cadre of states have rethought harsh penalties, and invested in diversionary treatment and rehabilitation programs. The result has been increased public safety, decreased spending, and transformed lives.
Ensuring the Punishments Fits the Crime:
For people convicted of many low‐level offenses, prison terms may increase rather than reduce recidivism. Meanwhile, there is little or no evidence that longer sentences reduce or prevents crime. Evidence shows that swiftness and certainty of punishment are much stronger deterrents.
We also recognize that violent crime is a spectrum, and punishment should be tailored to fit the offence. While some people need to be incarcerated to uphold and protect public safety, there are others who deserve a second chance. Take, for example, the case of Taurus Buchanan. When Taurus was 16 years old, he threw a single punch while trying to break up a street fight, and killed another child. Taurus was sentenced to mandatory life without parole. Today, his victim’s mother believes that he should be released, and the man who prosecuted him believes that Taurus deserves a second chance.