Beginning in the 1970s, Angela Davis has been a prominent advocate of prison reform. In fact, Davis takes a radical approach, believing reform isn’t enough and prisons should be abolished almost completely. Davis believes that the “tough on crime” laws of the ‘80s didn’t decrease crime or create safer neighborhoods, but instead inflated prison populations with mostly Black, Latino, and Native American people and mentally ill individuals. Because of the realities of the prison experience are an enigma to those who have never lived inside its walls, says Davis, this makes prisoners susceptible to abuse and allows the general population to remain ignorant about the prison experience. Davis believes that more adequate schools, recreational centers, and stronger communities are part of the solution to ending mass incarceration and ending the incentives for crimes (Potier, 2003).
Michelle Alexander is another figure who’s had their turn criticizing the current state of the justice system. In her article The New Jim Crow, Alexander discusses the impact of mass incarceration on communities of color, particularly the Black community, and how race contributes to the alarming number of Black men entering the penal system (Alexander, 2009). The book analyzes the criminalization of communities of color which leads to the overrepresentation of these communities in prison for drug crimes, despite similar or lesser rates of drug use. Among the discourse, Alexander states that those with felony records are barred from many social services (such as food stamps and public housing), which also contributes to the stigma and status of many Black families (Alexander, 2009).
The Sentencing Project is an organization that aims to change the general perception of incarceration in the United States. Their philanthropy includes revolutionary research, campaigning, and advocacy for prison reform. Some of their topics include statistics of current incarceration rates, the plight of prisoners today, or the contributors to mass incarceration (“About the Sentencing Project,” n.d.). Their advocacy and information help individuals who may not understand or realize the harsh reality of the prison population today. They assist framing the issue in a way that is easy to understand and easily digestible to those who may not be well versed in the issue.
Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) is a member of the House of Representatives. In Spring 2018, Rep. Jeffries sponsored an innovative, bipartisan bill called Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person Act (FIRST STEP Act). This progressive bill aims to change the current conditions of the current justice system by providing education, vocational training, and mental health counselling to assist. These programs will assist the reentry process to reduce recidivism, access inmates for their risk of reoffending, imprisoned inmates closer to their homes and family, implement rules in housing pregnant women and the elderly, and assist inmates in finding an ID (“Jeffries Bipartisan,” n.d.). With his support with this bill, it’s possible that Rep. Jeffries could sponsor future bills that change the criminal justice system and his sponsorship of this bill is direct action for changing the current state of the system.
There are many different points of view that have resulted in the changes in cocaine sentencing over time. The enactment of the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 aligned with Conservative values. That policy increased the profit of privatized prisons because the courts could sentence people the mandatory minimum on their first offense. The concept of privatized prisons relies on people being in prison and maintaining and even increasing the current prison population in order to make profits. In addition, Conservatives emphasize the concept of personal responsibility which the Anti-Drug Abuse Act upheld through first offense sentences. If a person did not want to deal with the consequences of possessing crack cocaine, they should not have had it. Furthermore, it showed that the offenders were responsible for their own problems and that society was not going to help them. On the contrary, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, although it passed with bipartisan support, aligned more with the liberal beliefs. This policy aims to reduce the mass incarceration in the country by reducing the chance that they will be sentenced on their first offense. It is incredibly expensive to incarcerate each person and the harsh punishments for crack cocaine were detrimental to the public because their tax money goes toward caring for inmates. It benefits everyone in some way because it gives the offender a chance to stop using cocaine and is one less person in the system that the public is responsible to provide for. Current policies surrounding mass incarceration and prison reform is a long overdue conversation. Although met with some backlash, policies changing the system are slowly, but surely, finding their way into legislation. Despite some major opponents to prison reform, the 2018 midterm election showed us that Americans want prison reform. Many states included some form of reformation on the ballots during the election and constituents voted for radical policies that can change the perception of the current penal system (Lake & Gotoff, 2018).
The Clean Slate Act of 2018 is one piece of legislation that has been proposed to combat mass incarceration. The act proposes that those convicted of small drug offenses (without the intent to sell or distribute; for personal use only) will have their records sealed after a certain time frame after completing their term of imprisonment or probation. The offense cannot be violent, the individual cannot be a sex offender, and must not have committed any subsequent offenses (Clean Slate Act of 2018). Because of the stipulations, this bill mainly benefits those who were struggling with a substance use disorder.
This policy helps tackle mass incarceration by removing the stigma associated with having a criminal record and assisting with ending recidivism. It’s not considered discrimination to not hire or rent to someone with a prior criminal background, so many ex-offenders find themselves homeless or without a job after release. With so many barriers to reentry, many of those formerly incarcerated may end up reoffending due to lack of resources to either get out of their old community (and old habits), get out of poverty, or step away from bad influences (McKernan, n.d.).
In Ohio, a controversial bill made its way onto the ballot in November 2018. Issue 1 proposed that all criminal penalties (except murder, rape, or child molestation) will be reduced by 25% if the individual participates in rehabilitation or educational programming. The bill also proposed that drug possession for personal use will no longer be a felony but instead a misdemeanor and the penalty for the crime would not include jail time. Issue 1 also called for reallocation of funding for state rehabilitation programs. Supports said it would help addicts get the help they need while others said it just enable them and keep addicts from facing the consequences of their addiction (Bischoff, 2018). While the purpose of the bill may have been to keep addicts out of prison and into treatment facilities, many feel the bill would just be an enabler.
In the future, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 may very well lead to other similar legislature that will provide further equality in the criminal justice system. There is also the chance that the retroactive application should and could be changed to include every person who was charged and sentenced, before and after the law was enacted (Cockroft, 2017). This not coming to fruition would be further ways to use the law to keep minorities, specifically African Americans, in unfair situations and powerless positions. This law has lowered the amount of prisoners. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, was a much needed response to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1996. In 1996, the disparity between the amount of crack and powder cocaine being at a ratio of 100:1 that would trigger the mandatory sentence was reduced to 18:1 in 2010. The benefits of this new policy helped reduce the racial implications that were tied to the previous policy. In addition, the new policy has increased fines and sentencing to drug trafficking and taken away the mandatory jail time for first time offenders depending on circumstance. Limitations to this new policy are that although it has reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine it could be a lowered to an even more equal sentencing since crack and powder cocaine are basically the same drug. Another possible modification for this policy could even insite harsher sentencing for drug traffickers since it is the first link in the chain that need to be broken to help fight the of the drug problem in the United States.