Now, more than ever, America is calling into question the effectiveness of its behemoth criminal justice system. As prison reform bills make their way through both houses of Congress, conservatives and liberals alike are coalescing around the need for reform. On Tuesday, PolicyMic's Politics Section is hosting a Prison Reform Day of Discussion to bring into focus the issues presented by incarceration in the U.S.
America is the prison capital of the world. One in every 34 adults in the U.S. (2.9% of Americans, or nearly 7 million people) is under some form of correctional supervision, according to the latest data from the Department of Justice. That rate is higher than that of any other industrialized nation, and unprecedented in U.S. history: In the last 30 years, the total state and federal prison population of the United States has increased by over 500%.
Approximately half of all prisoners nationwide are convicted for nonviolent crimes, and about one in five of all prisoners is facing charges for a drug-related offense. Mandatory minimum laws, which give predetermined sentences of 6 years on average for drug offenses, have caused the federal prison population to jump 27% in the last decade.
In November, a report from the American Civil Liberties Union identified more than 3,200 prisoners in America who are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for offenses like possession of a crack pipe, possession of a bottle cap containing a microscopic amount of heroin, and acting as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana.
The cost of keeping so many Americans behind bars is a massive burden on taxpayers. The federal government alone spent over $6.6 billion in 2012 on incarceration, while the states combined spent $53 billion. These costs, combined with the ballooning of the U.S. prison population and high rates of recidivism (repeated re-offenses), have led many to conclude that the criminal justice system no longer serves the public interest.
Recently, momentum has been building behind a bi-partisan movement to shift America's approach to public safety away from the criminal justice system and towards a diverse arsenal of targeted social interventions. These measures range from drug rehabilitation to parole supervision to education programs for juvenile offenders.
Meanwhile, activist organizations have mounted campaigns to expose and combat the billion-dollar private prison industry that promotes mass incarceration. We're also seeing new efforts to reform mandatory minimum laws to allow state and federal judges more discretion when it comes to sentencing on a case-by-case basis.
On Tuesday, PolicyMic's Politics section is hosting a day of discussion about prison reform. We're featuring Op-Ed articles from a variety of guest writers with different perspectives on prison reform. The authors include:
U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), who will introduce a bi-partisan bill, which he is co-sponsoring with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), that aims to reduce federal prison costs and reduce recidivism.
Lindsey Cramer of the Urban Institute, who will discuss nine innovative and effective alternatives to prison that 17 states are currently employing.
Father George Williams, SJ, the Catholic chaplain who serves over 700 Death Row inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California, will share his experiences ministering to the condemned.
Jesse Lava of Beyond Bars, a crusader seeking to expose corporate prison profiteering through a series of short videos, who will recount how a college crush turned him on to activism.
Plus, be sure to check out these articles by PolicyMic contributors that deal with the many facets of prison reform:
We look forward to your participation in this important discussion of a hot-button topic.