Guest Opinion: Finding the political will to reform a broken criminal justice system

Congress has to take on many priorities. However, the fact that a staggering 2.3 million sit incarcerated in the purported “land of the free” demonstrates injustice of epidemic proportions—one that requires the immediate attention of both Congress and the public at large.

The U.S. is currently the world leader in incarceration. Since the 1980s, the U.S. population has grown 43 percent while the prison population has increased a staggering 630 percent.  As of 2015, 100 million Americans had some form of arrest or criminal record. This is the same number of people with college diplomas. 

Here in Colorado legislators showed courage in passing SB13-250 and reducing sentencing. This law afforded offenders diversionary sentences that would help them make amends through drug rehabilitation and other community options before a jailcell—what should be a last resort. Our government understood that you can’t incarcerate addiction or poverty. It’s a disease to be cured. Devastating lives by putting them in a cage is not productive or cost-efficient.

An important first step in reforming our broken and punitive criminal justice system, the Fair Sentencing Act corrected some of this injustice by bringing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100-1 down to 18-1. Unfortunately, Congress failed to make this change retroactive. The story of Eugene Downs illustrates this failure dramatically. Sentenced one day before the law passed in 2010, Downs received a prison sentence twice as long as his co-defendants.

Mandatory minimum sentences impact youth as well. There are 16 and 17-year old children sentenced to spend the rest of their life behind bars for drug possession. Many of these offenders are nonviolent.  At the federal level, more than 67 percent of these offenders are people of color. In 2017 almost one-third of offenders sent to federal prison went there for their first offense. 

Several members of Congress have taken the lead in working to reverse some of the damage done to millions of families and communities.  Led by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) S.1917 tackles the most important part of mass incarceration by reducing excessive mandatory minimum sentences. It reduces some prospective sentences and allows those incarcerated under old laws to petition the court for a reduction—it’s not a “get out of jail free” card.

After years of movement on criminal justice reform, we can’t afford to give up on making comprehensive and fair reforms.  Instead of improving public health and safety, unnecessarily long prison sentences exacerbate hunger, poverty, and inequality in the United States.  Mandatory minimum sentences force judges to sentence too many people to prison for too many years.  We can’t make meaningful change without addressing how people enter the system. 

What is lost in mandatory minimum sentencing is consideration for the dignity of those impacted.  In the past, lawmakers have acted on a presumption of criminality—forgetting that overcrowded prisons and lack of effective programming only creates more criminality. 

The SRCA leaves mandatory minimums in place but reduces them so that judges have more discretion in sentencing.  In fact, it is currently the only bill that comprehensively addresses mass incarceration by reducing sentences to also allow us to afford improvements to prison programming.

Most Americans want criminal justice reform. Seventy-one percent of Americans want even more than what SRCA offers: eliminating mandatory minimums altogether. Sixty-eight percent of Americans, including the majority of voters who supported President Trump, want to reduce our prison population and use the savings on programs like addiction recovery and mental healthcare. This model of sentencing reductions and anti-recidivism programming is exactly what SRCA uses.

This proves that what we need is the political will and desire to do what is right by these millions and the future of the whole country. Sen. Gardner (R-CO) should cosponsor S.1917 and reverse decades of mass incarceration.

Dorothy Myers lives in Alamosa. She has served as an accountant and has co-owned a large farming corporation for over 46 years. She serves on several nonprofit boards, working to keep children safe and provide budgeting and finance counsel to members of her community. She is a mother of eight with nine grandchildren. 


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