In light of mass incarceration in America, many people are wondering how to curb the number of imprisoned Americans. Many people suggest more sentencing reform, while the NAAUSA begs to differ. According to Forbes:
Between 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population exploded, rising from 24,640 to 219,298, largely because of the war on drugs, which accounts for half of federal prisoners. Yet the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA) insists in a recent position paper that “our federal prison population is not exploding.” How so? The number of federal prisoners fell slightly between 2013 and 2014, from 219,298 to 214,149. According to NAAUSA, that 2.3 percent drop makes up for the 790 percent increase that preceded it. Since balance already has been restored to the criminal justice system, it says, there is no need for sentencing reform.
The desperation reflected in such transparently misleading arguments is a hopeful sign for those of us who agree with former Attorney General Eric Holder that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Bipartisan support for sentencing reform is stronger than at any point in recent memory, with the Obama administration and leading Republicans in both chambers of Congress united in viewing current penalties as excessively harsh. “I've long believed that there needs to be reform of the criminal justice system,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said last month. “We've got a lot of people in prison, frankly, who, in my view, really don't need to be there.”
Most Americans seem to agree. In an ACLU survey conducted last June, more than two-thirds of respondents said it is important to reduce the number of people behind bars, which includes about 2 million people in state prisons and county jails in addition to the 200,000 or so in federal prisons. The only thing preventing legislators from acting on that goal is bad arguments and the fear they inspire.
NAAUSA argues that sentencing reform is not just unnecessary but positively dangerous. It warns that “higher crime rates…will inevitably flow from the return of numerous federal drug traffickers to our communities at a significantly faster rate and the non-prosecution of many more.” But while it's true that a rising prison population has coincided with falling crime rates in the last two decades, the relationship between those two trends is not as clear as NAAUSA implies.
Judge Alex Kozinski, whom Ronald Reagan appointed to the U.S. Court Appeals for the 9th Circuit in 1985, a few years into the imprisonment binge that gave us the world's highest incarceration rate, reflects on that dubious distinction in a recent Georgetown Law Journal article. “We are committed to a system of harsh sentencing because we believe that long sentences deter crime and, in any event, incapacitate criminals from victimizing the general population while they are in prison,” Kozinski writes. “And, indeed, the United States is enjoying an all-time low in violent crime rates, which would seem to support this intuition. But crime rates have been dropping steadily since the 1990s, and not merely in the United States but throughout the industrialized world. Our intuition about harsh sentences deterring crime may thus be misguided. We may be spending scarce taxpayer dollars maintaining the largest prison population in the industrialized world, shattering countless lives and families, for no good reason.”[…]
Even if NAAUSA were right that shorter sentences make federal prosecutors' jobs harder, that would not justify the current penalties. “U.S. sentences are vastly, shockingly longer than just about anywhere else in the world,” Kozinski observes. While “elected officials, regardless of party affiliation and political leaning, seem to favor Draconian sentences, and the public seems to support them in the abstract,” he says, there is evidence that politicians have overestimated voters' demand for harsh punishment. Kozinski cites an experiment in which James Gwin, a federal judge in Ohio, asked jurors in 22 trials to suggest appropriate sentences for the defendants they convicted. On average, Gwin reported, “jurors recommended sentences that were 37% of the minimum Guidelines recommended sentences and 22% of the median Guidelines recommended sentences.”
While the war on drugs is greatly intertwined with the overflowing prison population in America, it is also a combination of several other bad governmental choices. Looking at it purely from the standpoint that the war on drugs causes mass incarceration is a one-dimensional outlook that doesn't provide much help on the issue.