Why has incarceration exploded in the United States? Over the past few decades incarceration rates have increased 700%. Have we suddenly become an utterly lawless country? Or is something else going on.
We caught up with Glenn Martin, at Impact Prisons 2017 to get his take on the situation. In this interview, he suggests that mandatory sentencing laws contribute to the problem. Mandatory sentencing laws were came into vogue in the heyday of the War on Drugs. It was believed by many that if the prison sentences were long enough, and harsh enough, that people who use and sell drugs would stop doing. The threat of prison was regarded as a deterrent.
The following decades have proven this hope to be spectacularly naïve. Apparently, those who use drugs recreationally don’t weigh the possibility of prison sentences, which are after all rather remote. And those who sell and transport drugs apparently think that the rewards outweigh the risk.
Nonetheless, sentences for drug possession and drug trafficking have increased dramatically, even up to 20 years. And mandatory sentences make it impossible for judges to step in and shorten those sentences based upon a lack of a criminal record or other factors.
In addition, many states have create mandatory sentences for repeat offenders, such as California’s Three Strikes Law, which was designed to put an end to the petty crimes committed by repeat offenders. The immediate consequence of the law was that many people were sent away for 20 year long mandatory sentences for petty crimes like shoplifting.
Not that anyone support shoplifting, but if we are going to send people away for life, for the offense of stealing a screw driver, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the prison population explodes and becomes more and more expensive. Simply from an economic perspective, this makes no sense for society whatsoever.
From a justice perspective the situation is equally dire. The mandatory sentencing laws in the United States are notoriously harsh when judged alongside the other modern industrial societies. Decades long and life sentences for drug possession can hardly be regarded as sensible in the modern world.
Martin suggests that giving judges back their discretionary power may help to alleviate the surge in incarceration. Judges should be able to consider all of the circumstances and consequences of a crime, and seek out the best possible alternative for all involved, rather than have their hands tied by the most draconian choice.
We need a large dose of sanity to reform our prison sentence. Giving judges the power to act as judges rather than administrators is a step in the right direction.