After years of enacting tough-on-crime policies, including rigid minimum-mandatory sentences, several U.S. states are rethinking this costly and inefficient approach. In order to address this untenable situation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the largest nonprofit association of state legislators dedicated to the principles of free markets and federalism, is proposing a legislative framework that would allow greater discretion during sentencing, especially nonviolent and low-risk offenders.
ALEC’s report comes on the heels of a recent bipartisan federal effort to ease prison overcrowding and reduce high rates of recidivism. The study offers state lawmakers a series of specific policy remedies that have been proven to cut crime, save tax dollars and reduce the number of the incarcerated.
According to the authors of the report, 18 states exceeded the maximum measure of their prison facilities’ capacity. Illinois, for example, was 171 percent over the designated capacity. Other states are facing similar situations, which helps explain why the number of people incarcerated in state prisons has increased considerably over the last three decades. In addition to the overcrowded state prisons, the latest numbers from the Federal Bureau of Prisons pegs the number of federal prisoners atnearly 200,000. As a result, today the United States has the unfortunate distinction of incarcerating people at a higher rate than other countries.
Thankfully policymakers, from both sides of the aisle, are coming together to look at ways of reducing the number of prisoners without compromising public safety. At the federal level this has meant the unlikely alliance of conservatives including Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) joining forces with President Barack Obama and even the ultra progressive American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in support of criminal justice reform. And just last week, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan singled out criminal justice reformas a priority for House Republican this year.
And yet despite this positive momentum, the reality is that if America is going to make a dent in reducing the number of incarcerated, states will have to lead. That’s because state prisoners make up the overwhelming bulk of our country’s incarcerated.
According to the authors of the study, one way to strike a balance between protecting the general public while being good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars can be found in designing a justice safety valve. In practical terms, a safety valve would give sentencing judges discretion to waive mandatory minimums if they meet certain requirements including not having had a previous conviction for the same offense within the last ten years.
Oklahoma, Maryland and North Dakota have all passed their own versions of ALEC’s legislative framework: the Justice Safety Valve Act, which “strikes a balance between the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the inflexible application of mandatory minimums irrespective of mitigating circumstances.”
In addition to the financial costs of mass incarceration, which can span from around$30,000 to $60,000 per prisoner, there is also the human cost that includes broken families and the loss of able-bodied adults that have the possibility of joining the workforce and becoming productive members of society.
Israel Ortega is originally from Mexico City, but has been living in the United States, including New York City, Washington, D.C. and Nashville. Israel is a father of three and is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives