Viewpoint

Should Congress lighten criminal sentences?

President Obama speaks at El Reno Federal Corrections Institute in El Reno, Oklahoma July 16.
President Obama speaks at El Reno Federal Corrections Institute in El Reno, Oklahoma July 16. AFP/GETTY

President Barack Obama recently visited a federal prison in Oklahoma to build support for changes to the criminal justice system.

The president deplored the sharp increase in the prison population over the past 35 years and said, “We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to control crime.”

Republicans in Congress sound amenable to some reforms, but does it make sense for Congress to ease federal sentencing laws? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk weigh in.

JOEL MATHIS

From certain angles, the United States looks little better than a totalitarian state.

Consider these numbers from The Sentencing Project:

▪ In the last two generations, America’s state and federal prisons’ populations have exploded from about 200,000 in 1960 to about 1.6 million in 2013.

▪ The U.S. imprisons more than 700 of every 100,000 citizens – the most in the world.

▪ Total state spending on prisons was $6.7 billion in 1985 and $51.9 billion in 2013.

▪ A whopping 50.7 percent of federal prisoners are serving time for drug crimes.

All this imprisoning tears apart families, makes it difficult to obtain legitimate work and hurts the fabric of society. And they’re hives of mental illness. People who do get out frequently lack the skills to do anything but go back in.

The system is expensive and disruptive. And most people agree it does more harm than good.

“Our prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job,” Obama said recently. “We have to make sure that ... we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around.”

Reducing minimum sentences is just one of the steps needed to achieve that goal. We should take it immediately.

BEN BOYCHUK

It’s rare to find bipartisan agreement on anything these days. But on the question of reforming the federal criminal justice system, consensus is welcome. Being “tough on crime” doesn’t require refusal to change in the face of certain realities.

One such reality is that not all drug offenses are worthy of prison. Some states already know this. Until last year, California had a drug court program that diverted thousands of potential felons from prison to treatment. If convicts completed treatment and found employment, their conviction was expunged. If they dropped out, they went to prison.

Giving judges flexibility to try certain offenders in drug court was good for society and taxpayers.

Another reality is that mandatory minimum sentences are akin to zero-tolerance policies. When harsh punishments are meted out for “offenses” that no one would consider wrong, people begin to hold the law in contempt.

Removing fairness, proportion and common sense from criminal proceedings is not conducive to justice.

Right on Crime, the Texas Public Policy Center’s criminal justice reform project, notes that the Constitution “lists only three federal crimes, but the number of statutory federal crimes is ... now around 4,500.” Many are so obscure that civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate says Americans may be committing up to three felonies a day.

What better exemplifies a government without limits or accountability?

Any worthwhile reform should tackle “overcriminalization” first. Fewer federal crimes would mean fewer minimum mandatory sentences, and the prison population would decline as a matter of course.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis is associate editor of Philadelphia Magazine.

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