The Obama Administration has made prison reform a top priority. For years there has been a massive outcry for reformative action to be taken against mandatory minimum sentences that sometimes gives life sentences to low level drug offenders. The consensus has been that these harsh penalties has taken the power from judges to review cases on an individual basis and has given prosecutors too much leverage. All crimes and criminal offenders are not created equally, but the sentencing guide prevents sentences proportionate to the crime and offender. Justice cannot be done in this type of penal system, not for citizens or criminals that need rehabilitation. Statistics shows that minorities are unfairly targeted more than whites and subjected to these harsh sentences resulting in state and federal correctional facilities filled with blacks and Hispanics. Before changes were made, every one gram of crack cocaine was equal to one hundred grams of powder cocaine. So fifty grams of crack (a little larger than an averaged sized chocolate chip cookie) was equivalent to five kilograms of powder cocaine. This chocolate chip cookie sized amount of drugs carried a mandatory minimum ten year sentence on the Federal level.
The eighties were a crazy time in America. The Regan Administration declared war on drugs. Crack dealing became a form of domestic and crack dealers became public enemy number one. The media fed the American public images of millionaire crack dealers with armies armed with better weapons than law enforcement. Murder rates spiked in every major city. Gang banging was spreading from the West Coast to the East Coast because of enterprising young dealers were expanding their drug operations. The news spoke of crack users, babies being born addicted to crack and America’s youth being strung out on this new high. Wars broke out over territory. Crack ruled the urban areas and would soon find a foothold in suburban America.
Politicians on the state and national level cried out for change. Community activists wanted their neighborhoods and it’s children protected from the crack epidemic. Anti-drug campaigns were targeting America’s youth. Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign became the battle cry for a nation faced with a common enemy. Congress was petitioned for stiffer penalties for these crack dealing kingpins and their minions. New York Instituted the Rockefeller Drug Laws. These Draconian solutions were supposed to deter crime. Instead they gave men and women lengthy sentences for their involvement in the drug trade and created a boom market for prison construction. State and federal governments supplied the bodies (prisoners) and workers to these privately owned prisons in exchange for a piece of the profits. The Prison Industrial Complex became a savior to small rural communities creating jobs and factories with the cheapest labor on American soil since slavery. Factories made everything from women’s lingerie to furniture. Our streets became “safer” and the capitalists made money hand over fist.
Then the truth came out about the Government’s promises the owners of these prisons that the institutions will remain near full capacity in order to maintain profitablity.What better way to do this than with mandatory minimum sentences that guaranteed bodies in prison cells? Money that was being allocated to fight crimes were being misused. Minorities were more likely to end up in prison with lengthy sentences than whites for the same small amounts of drugs. Tax dollars were being wasted housing low-level drug dealers some of whom were not even dealers but users. The irony in all this was that the same community leaders and politicians that asked Congress for these sentences were now begging for Congress to change these laws. Their plan had backfired. The war on drugs had many casualties, some in the grave yard and some buried in prisons. Men and women spent the majority of their youth in prison victims of legislation that lacked foresight and that failed to take into account the effect that it would have on the lives of the offenders.
Enter President Obama and his United States Attorney General Eric Holder ushering in a new era of sweeping reforms. First there was the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced the disparity of crack to powder cocaine from 100-1 to 18-1. Then there came the Smarter Sentencing Act in 2013. Low level drug dealers no longer faced lengthy sentences. The men and women sentenced to those outrageous amounts of time in the late eighties to early nineties for crack cocaine were being released due to the changes in the guidelines. Overnight people went from waiting to die in prison to being released immediately, families were reunited, it was a time of celebration. The once condemned now had a chance at life again. The new men and women coming in could go to prison serve their time and come home with enough time to change their lives and be productive citizens. First time offenders were eligible for probation and drug programs. The judges were given back their power to sentence how they saw fit. These reforms seemed like a victory for the justice system, the inmate population and the activists that were lobbying against mandatory minimum sentences.
Changing the sentencing guidelines only solved part of the problem. What is not being discussed is that while prisons were making cutbacks due to overcrowding prior to the Obama Administrations reforms, the first thing to go were the educational and vocational programs. Those with anger management issues or other issues like illiteracy that plagued them their entire could not receive any help. That resulted in thousands of convicts being released back into society without any marketable skills, along with mental and emotional issues that weren’t resolved. Coupled with the fact that the world has changed dramatically since they were first sent to prison. It is safe to say that many of those released or set to be released are not equipped to function properly in society.
The Great Reformers should think it through more thoroughly before they just kick people out of prison without first considering protecting society’s interests. True the tax payer dollars are no longer being wasted on housing small time dealers and users, instead the money is being spent on subsidized housing, feeding the recently freed and social security programs to help inmates readjust to society (usually just a check every month).In essence all the government did was release the inmates and placed them on welfare. Has the problem truly been solved or has it just changed form? Recidivism is still at an all time high because prisons and governments are not concerned with rehabilitation just their bottom lines. We’re releasing men and women that are years sometimes decades removed from society, unable to function in this digital high-speed world. Leaving them no choice but to go back to a life and crime and return back to prison. This cycle will be repeated until the courts sentence them to another mandatory minimum sentence designed for career offenders. Some the first time offenders that are coming into the system after the new reforms were enacted will receive the benefits of the changes learn nothing form their mistakes, repeat the cycle until they are sentenced as career offenders.
Prison is supposed to rehabilitate. If it doesn’t then we’ve failed the inmates and society. I agree that harsh sentences that removes the power from judges to view each set of unique circumstances in every case are wrong. Changing the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines was the right course of action. I also believe that before an inmate becomes eligible for a break or reduced sentence his or her actions must reflect that they deserve it. Meaning that there must be irrefutable evidence that while incarcerated they were actively working hard to change their lives in order to become a functioning part of society. Sentence reduction must be tied directly to behavioral modification. This message must be continuously ingrained into the inmates. The government must address the inmates needs. Simple things like how to write a resume, how to dress for an interview, parenting classes as well as information on education opportunities must be provided. Society cannot be placed at risk by just releasing inmates into the streets.
Some criminals do deserve lengthy sentences. Everyone shouldn’t be rewarded by the reforms, only those that have earned it. the reformists aren’t truly taking all factors into consideration when they make sweeping changes to the penal system. Like those before them in the Eighties and Nineties that instituted Draconian punishments, the human element and the effects that these changes will have on society for decades to come are not being taken into consideration. Prison reforms will never work if the prisoners are not rehabilitated and reformed.