Do Prison Sentences Need To Be Reduced For Drug Felons?
WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 19, 2017) – A bill introduced in 2015 that would have allowed some nonviolent federal inmates to seek shorter sentences was never voted on by the United States Congress. The legislation, introduced by Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, would have impacted thousands of federal inmates whose sentences could be shortened. Which brings us all to the question: What ARE we going to do? The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world, jailing 25% of the world’s prisoners at a cost of $80 billion a year. Our prison population more than quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2015, filled mostly with black men serving 10-20 years and even life without parole for their first and only drug offense. The legislation, which would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences and given judges more flexibility in sentencing, had 37 sponsors in the Senate and 79 in the House. It had support from the Koch brothers, the NAACP and even House Speaker Paul Ryan. So why did it not go before our Congressional leaders? One strong voice condemned it at the time. “Violent crime and murders have increased across the country at almost alarming rates in some areas,” said then Republican Alabama Senator and now United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Drug use and overdoses are occurring and dramatically increasing. It is against this backdrop that we are considering a bill to cut prison sentences for drug traffickers and even other violent criminals, including those currently in federal prison.” The bill was rejected by Committee for a full Senate vote. Then there’s the issue of accountability for false imprisonment. Massachusetts is set to dismiss 21,587 drug convictions tied to a state chemist convicted of falsifying evidence for years. Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 counts of obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence. It will be the largest dismissal of wrongful convictions as a result of one case in United States history. Is it an isolated incident? Do we know? Private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government.
In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion in revenue and their top executives reportedly received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million. GEO and Corrections Corporation of America and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. There are now about 130 private prisons in the country with about 157,000 beds. It is a profitable industry on the rise. Many in recovery have lost their voting rights because of their addiction. In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most ex-felons automatically gain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentence. In some states, ex-felons must wait for a certain period of time after the completion of their sentence before rights can be restored. In other states, an ex-felon must apply to have voting rights restored. “I don’t believe the best option to truly change a life for individuals charged with felony conviction is long-term incarceration,” says Vertava Health Chief People Officer Dr. Jason Brooks. “I’d be much more in favor of getting creative by implementing options for lesser jail time in exchange for actively engaging and participating in an inpatient treatment program. That’s where real change happens.” As part of the 21st Century Cures Act that Congress passed into law on December 13, 2016, states will receive $1 billion over two years to prevent and treat the use of heroin and other opioids and addictive drugs. This law authorizes Attorney General Jeff Sessions to establish a pilot program to help determine the effectiveness of diverting eligible offenders from federal prosecution, federal probation, or a Bureau of Prisons facility, and placing them as eligible offenders in drug or mental health courts. Evidence shows that relief efforts centered around treatment are much more effective than those centered around criminalizing addiction. The so-called “war on drugs” is a decades long failure. Our nation is in a public health crisis, not a crime spree. It is the hope of Vertava Health that President Trump’s Administration will continue to find viable solutions for the American people suffering from a disease that claims the lives of 200 people a day in our country. What do we know for sure? We cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic. The only way out is through awareness, education and treatment.