The notorious case of Michael Saracino in St. Louis County brings into sharp relief the disparities in our criminal justice system. Saracino was convicted in a multi-million dollar drug conspiracy and sentenced to two years in federal prison. Court documents indicate he was instrumental in planning the fire-bombing of an elderly widow’s house in a drug deal retribution actually meant for a neighbor.
Is two years in prison an appropriate sentence for someone convicted of selling over a ton of marijuana? Apparently so, if you are white and politically connected, as Saracino is. But it is not the experience of thousands of other defendants. Michelle Alexander, in her thoroughly documented book, “The New Jim Crow,” writes that a first-time drug offender typically receives 5-10 years in prison. And she cites Supreme Court approval of 40 years for attempting to sell 9 ounces of marijuana, and life in prison for a first-time defendant attempting to sell 23 ounces of crack cocaine.
In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today it is over 219,000 — more than an eight-fold increase — nearly half for drug offenses. The land of the free now imprisons more people than any other country.
Why are we locking up so many of our citizens and “throwing away the key?” The reason is the war on drugs — the imposition of lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for even minor drug crimes. In 2013, for example, half of all defendants sentenced for federal drug offenses had little or no criminal history. And 93 percent were considered low-level because, unlike Saracino, they did not play a leadership or supervisory role in the offense.
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Middle-class defendants with private attorneys usually get probation, drug treatment and community service for drug offenses. Their offenses are portrayed as merely youthful hijinks.
The vast majority of people we are putting in jail for long periods are poor and minorities who cannot afford private attorneys. With hugely overburdened public defenders they are forced to accept plea deals. Under mandatory sentencing, judges cannot take into account the person’s criminal history or lack thereof, or any other mitigating factors.
The cost of exploding prison populations is staggering — about $30,000 a year for each federal inmate. For 219,000 inmates that comes to over 6.5 billion dollars! No one thinks we are winning the war on drugs with this outlay. That money could be far better spent on drug treatment and education, rehabilitation, and mental health care, remedies proven to be far more effective.
In addition, prison overcrowding makes for extremely dangerous conditions for the inmates as well as the staff charged with supervising them.
Mass incarceration is devastating to the community. More than two-thirds of people who are incarcerated were employed and more than half were the primary support for their children. Their children are more likely to fall into poverty, experience depression and withdrawal or become aggressive. They are more likely to struggle in school and be expelled. We are creating the next generation of impoverished and troubled teens prone to trouble with the law. This means more dollars for future crime and incarceration, a senseless cycle we should end.
When inmates are finally released with the label of felon hanging over them, they have trouble finding work. They are barred from federal financial aid for education, from public housing, from any kind of temporary assistance such as TANF or food stamps. Can’t we do a better job of helping returning citizens become productive members of society? Shouldn’t their “debt to society” be marked “paid” after years behind bars? Must we punish them and their families for the rest of their lives?
A bipartisan effort to initiate modest reform of our federal criminal justice system has resulted in The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S. 2123, which recently passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a resounding vote of 15-5. The bill calls for a reduction in mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses (but they are still hefty.) It allows judges some discretion in sentencing. It assists those reentering society.
Some current inmates could get their sentences reduced by as much as 25 percent by taking part in rehabilitation programs, if they are deemed a low risk to offend again.
Sentence reductions are barred for violent offenders, sex offenders, inmates convicted of terrorism, members of organized crime syndicates and major fraud offenders.
Our country should not be distinguished by imprisoning huge numbers of people for minor drug crimes. That is not a sign of our greatness. We urge Sen. Mark Kirk to join Sen. Dick Durbin in the fight against mass incarceration by cosponsoring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
Jane Klopfenstein is the leade of Edwardsville Bread for the World Group. Christian N. Reuter, OFM, and Louis F. Slapshak, Prison Ministry Coordinators, Catholic Diocese of Belleville, also contributed to this essay.