A Site for Scholarly Commentary, Debate and Media Resources for the 2016 Election

National Issues

Time to reform drug-related prison sentences

The 2016 presidential candidates in both parties seem to agree that the United States has a “mass incarceration” problem, but will something finally be done about it?

The U.S. prison population has risen 408 percent from 1978 to 2014. Currently, 1 in every 110 adults in the U.S. are in a prison or local jail, and the U.S. prison rate is the world’s highest. More than 48 percent of the current federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses, the result of harsh mandatory minimum sentences that were introduced during the 1980s and compel judges to enforce prison terms without taking into account individual circumstances.

It’s time for our presidential candidates to make sentencing reform a major issue for 2016, specifically eliminating or seriously reforming mandatory minimums regarding nonviolent drug offenses. There are plenty of moral arguments to be made against mandatory minimums, including their draconian nature, the lack of proportionality to the crime, an undermining of federal judges’ role as the arbiter of justice, and the use of mandatory minimums by prosecutors to compel a defendant to take a guilty plea instead of going to trial.

If the moral arguments aren’t compelling enough, it is also true that we can’t have a debate about government spending and economics without acknowledging that $80 billion is spent every year in the U.S. on incarceration. This money might be justified if data backed mandatory minimums and incarceration as an effective deterrent, but a high rate of recidivism (about 76.6 percent of federal prisoners return to prison within 5 years) and evidence that longer sentences are not more of a deterrent refute this argument.

Although the media has suggested a diverse group of candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders, all share the goal of criminal justice reform, I am less optimistic. Only 4 candidates (Clinton, Rand Paul, Martin O’Malley and Sanders) explicitly acknowledge on their campaign website the need to reform or eliminate mandatory minimums. Two other candidates (John Kasich and Carly Fiorina) mention briefly the problem of mass incarceration. The campaign websites of Bush, Cruz and Rubio make no mention of criminal justice reform, nor do those of Donald Trump or Ben Carson.

The moral and economic arguments in favor of sentencing reform only go so far in the political climate of today, where being “tough on crime” is popular and politicians live in fear of being the person whose criminal justice reforms lead to an increase in crime. President Obama, in the last two years of his term, has finally begun to take action on the criminal justice reforms that he discussed in his 2008 platform, and 2014 was the first year since 1980 that the federal prison population has decreased.

We need a president who will continue this trend because the problem most definitely is not going away by itself.

Chloe Warnberg, from Dallas, Texas, is a junior studying public policy at Duke.

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