Our country is returning to past failed policies that ruined families and whole communities while financially enriching a small group of investors in misery—the prison industry. It does not have to be this way.
Remember when Attorney General Eric Holder, during the Obama administration, acknowledged our country’s mass incarceration policy as the actual destructive problem that it is, and there was bipartisan support for steps to reduce harsh prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders? Reducing mass incarceration was seemingly the one issue the left and right could agree on. A shift away from over-incarceration and towards drug treatment programs and fairer sentencing is both humane and sensible, particularly since our country locks up far more people than almost every other country in the world and disproportionately targets people of color. Both Republican and Democratic leaders were in agreement that we need to address our mass incarceration problem. So it is maddening that last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions pivoted us back to the days of federal prosecutors seeking the most severe mandatory sentences possible for non-violent crimes and low-level drug offenders. Let’s examine that anti-leadership and consider why the administration is taking this leap backwards.
Sessions directed federal prosecutors to return to the practice of charging offenders with the crimes carrying the most severe penalties, with the goal of locking up low-level, non-violent offenders for as long as possible. This is the exact opposite of what our criminal justice system needs. With mandatory sentences, judges have no discretion to impose lower sentences, so over-charging results in excessive sentences. The horror stories from the height of our over incarceration era illustrate how misguided such policies are. When judges are faced with the brutal combination of prosecutors over-charging and mandatory sentencing requirements, we end up with absurd results. We’ve seen nonviolent offenders receiving mandatory life sentences for crimes like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. These outrageous results devastate people and communities, and they are also dreadfully costly to taxpayers.
There seem to be two reasons for this backward march. The first relates to Sessions’ bigotry and unwillingness to see the humanity of criminal defendants. Sessions has had decades of racism charges following him. He has joked about supporting the KKK and disparaged black people throughout his career. In addition to that, Sessions is the Grim Reaper of the justice system, arguing for the death penalty in situations that most people can agree are profoundly unethical and/or unwarranted. As Attorney General of Alabama, Sessions sought to establish a mandatory death penalty for a second drug trafficking conviction, including selling marijuana. He pushed hard for Alabama to execute insane, mentally ill, and intellectually disabled people whose trial were riddled with instances of prosecutorial misconduct, racial discrimination and deeply shoddy defense lawyering. His past strongly suggests that he simply does not care about the people accused, particularly if those people happen to be black.
The other reason for him to push for higher incarceration rates is profit. We have a crime rate that has steadily dropped over the last 25 years, but an incarceration rate that keeps increasing exponentially. And with that, the for-profit prison industry has boomed. The two largest for-profit prison companies alone have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, the private prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 and the companies rake in $3.3 billion annually. Given the utter lack of transparency, it’s impossible to follow the money trail, but some folks are making a killing (quite literally by killing human lives, families, and communities), and you can be sure they’re paying to keep the prisoner spigot flowing. It’s not a stretch to conclude that profit is also part of the motivation for Sessions’ policy change to bring back longer prison sentences.