“I know some of those still waiting, men who were grievously over-sentenced, who have reformed themselves, and never had a record of violence.”
Non-violent criminals, many of whom have been incarcerated for drug-related crimes, hold a dramatic place in U.S. prisons. Because of many states ‘Three-Strikes Policy’, many of these criminals are given life sentences and later apply for clemency to moderate the severity of their punishment or sentence. As they fill prison space and their incarcerations cost citizens each year, many people are discussing whether they should be incarcerated or rehabilitated. But there is a place for these people in today’s society, and it isn’t behind bars.
Clemency isn’t something that’s just handed out to any prisoner who asks for it. The U.S. department of Justice’s Clemency Initiative shares the factors for prisoners to apply for clemency, including being a non-violent, low-level offender, having no significant criminal history or history of violence, and demonstrating good conduct in prison. Those who have been released from prison on the clemency initiative are no threat to society. So why were they imprisoned in the first place?
The U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, and this is largely due to its war on drugs. But that’s not the only harmful policy currently underway by our justice system. The “Three Strikes” statute provides for mandatory life imprisonment if convicted in federal court of a “serious violent felony”; and has two or more previous convictions in federal or state courts, at least one of which is a “serious violent felony” (the other offense may be a serious drug offense). But part of the issue is that the court in many of these cases relies on the defendant to prove certain crimes like unarmed robbery offenses or arsons (which posed no threat to human life) as non-violent. And if the defendant fails to prove so, it counts as a violent crime and they can go away for life. On paper, it may sound good, but in practice it gets messy. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court case Lockyer v. Andrade (2003), upheld the three-strikes law even though the defendant was only found guilty of stealing $150 worth of videotapes from two California department stores, with two prior convictions. Three nonviolent crimes meant a 50-year sentence for Leandro Andrade.
The good news is that more attention is being drawn to the issue of prison population, and more and more people aren’t okay with our prisons clogged by non-violent offenders while there’s a huge backlog of rape kits. Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D–Rhode Island, are pushing to allow more inmates to leave prison early by going through rehabilitation programs. Some people disagree with this reform and refuse to be okay with any prisoners going free, believing they’re all a danger to society. But that just isn’t true, and luckily, some lawmakers seem to agree. The Lee-Durbin bill, for instance, would affect only nonviolent drug offenders while the Portman-Whitehouse proposal explicitly excludes violent offenders. A special report from the U.S Department of Justice regarding Drug Offenders in federal prison shows that more than a third of federal drug offenders had the lowest level of criminal history at sentencing. The report also concludes that almost 8 in 10 (79%) federal drug offenders had no relevant criminal history. It’s just pointless having these non-violent prisoners spending years of their life behind bars.
In a PBS interview on non-violent offenders, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy shares his point of view, saying, “And what we find over and over again is the low-level narcotics offender is sometimes incarcerated at a greater rate than the violent criminal.” District Attorney Benjamin David (of New Hanover and Pender Counties in North Carolina) added to the conversation stating, “What we are really saying is that we need to have the right people in custody. And mentally ill drug addicts are not who we want to clog up the prisons and the jails with. It is a scarce resource when are you talking about those beds. And we want to put the career and violent criminals in those places.” The numbers aren’t what they should be. In fact, recent studies by Prison Policy Initiative have 14,000 violent crimes, among some 196,000 federal prisoners. That means that 182,000 federal prisoners are locked up for their non-violent offenses. And among those, 97,000, nearly half, are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Drugs should not be our priority. Especially not as hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in police department and crime lab storage facilities across the country.
Not to mention the racial bias. Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial and ethnic lines, blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than whites. According to the Bureau of Prisons, 85% of federal prisoners serving life for a crack offense are African-American; but the U.S Department of Health and Human Services has 66% of crack users as White or Hispanic. And overall, recent studies show that 75% of federal life sentences are given to minorities.
And perhaps worst of all, these prisoners all too often come back to a world that they no longer recognize, or that they’re shunned from. Even those few who do receive clemency are all too often shunned by society. According to Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, “Sixty-one grants, with over 9,000 petitions pending, is not an accomplishment to brag about. I know some of those still waiting, men who were grievously over-sentenced, who have reformed themselves, and never had a record of violence.”
It’s due time we shift our priorities. These laws are hurting non-violent, low-time drug users, mostly minorities, who don’t deserve to be imprisoned for years of their life. Even after being released, they face a world of cruelty, misunderstanding, and prejudice. These users are taking up space in our prisons, and we’re spending money on them instead of facing our priorities on violent criminals. We need to start looking towards members of our communities and leaders of our country that will support letting these users free or change the unnecessarily strict drug laws. The solution to these users is not in prison, it’s in therapy or rehabilitation centers that can help that person reroute their life.