Thursday, August 4, 2016

Release to the Captives

President Barack Obama meets for lunch with formerly incarcerated individuals who have received commutations, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2016.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:16-19

Yesterday President Obama made history by commuting the prison sentences of 214 people. According to the White House, that is the largest number of grants made in a single day since at least 1900.

Since taking office, the President has commuted 562 sentences, many more than other recent presidents.

A number of  law professors believe that even more commutations should be granted.

NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported that law professor Mark Osler told her, "I sometimes say that I feel like the guy that is rowing a lifeboat. And you're glad you have a few people in the boat, but you're feeling this impending sense of panic about the people in the water."

Johnson reported that law professors are advocating for at least 1,500 prisoners to be freed based on the president's own guidelines. She explained: "Those guidelines apply to inmates who have spent at least 10 years behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes — small players, not kingpins — people who would've received less prison time if they were convicted of laws on the books today."

According to the White House, "Since taking office, President Obama has fought for a smarter and more equitable criminal justice system.  He has committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy the unfairness at the heart of the system — including the presidential power to grant clemency."

Those pardoned yesterday were "incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws," according to the White House. 

Commuting the unreasonably long sentences of those convicted of non-violent offenses makes sense. It is a good beginning. But it is not enough.

One of the great myths about crime and punishment in the United States is that compared to the rest of the world, we are soft on crime. According to the myth, criminals are not given long enough sentences and even when the sentences are long, they get out earlier than those given comparable sentences in other countries.

But that is not so. 

In a speech on criminal justice at Columbia University on April 29, 2015, Hillary Clinton declared,

“It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.” 

Senator Rand Paul made a similar observation when he announced a reform bill he sponsored with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey:

“Though only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. … Not only does the current overpopulated, underfunded system hurt those incarcerated, it also digs deeper into the pockets of taxpaying Americans.”  
–Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in a news release on his Web site, March 9, 2015 

Those numbers may may seem unbelievable, but they are true.

Beyond the human cost, there is an economic cost. In 1980 the average American paid $77 per year in taxes to fund the prison system, by 2010 that cost had grown to $260. 

We need comprehensive prison reform. We lock up too many people and we keep them in prison too long. Other western nations have lower rates of incarceration, shorter sentences, more humane prisons, and lower recidivism rates. 

Surely we can do better.

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