SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic presidential candidates are eager to show voters that they have bold plans for criminal justice reform.
On June 20, Sen. Cory Booker, one of 20-plus Democratic presidential candidates, unveiled a plan to use the power of clemency to pardon “an estimated 17,000-plus nonviolent drug offenders serving unjust and excessive sentences,” according to Booker’s Medium page.
The following day Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced a plan to “ban private prisons and detention facilities,” “stop contractors from charging service fees for essential services,” and “hold contractors accountable by expanding oversight, transparency and enforcement.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar wants to expand drug courts, Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke proposed making marijuana legal on a federal level, Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to abolish private prisons, and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand wants to increase protections for pregnant women imprisoned, according to Axios. Only former Vice President Joe Biden has yet to put forward a specific plan.
And it isn't just Democrats. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are anxious to reduce the population in prisons and introduce reforms. President Donald Trump, despite his rhetoric of being tough on crime, signed the First Step Act in December 2018, a bipartisan bill that aimed to increase participation in educational and vocational training and reform sentencing.
For those who don't follow prison and jail reform, the announcements can seem sudden. Why are politicians of both parties making this a central part of their platforms?
“Incarceration touches pretty much every American community,” said Micah Haskel-Hoehll, senior government affairs associate at the Vera Institute of Justice. With one out of 38 adults under some form of correctional supervision, according to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report, advocates say more and more people are witnessing firsthand the consequences of tough-on-crime policies.
People are “fed up with nearly 40 years of mass incarceration. It was costly and ineffective,” said Ryan King, director of research and policy at the Justice Policy Institute.
According to King, “the scale of the war on drugs, the cost, and the lives that were lost really sparked a generation of people to say this is ridiculous, enough is enough.”
Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project, like many other advocates, said, “People are recognizing that maybe the war on drugs didn’t make sense, and the response to criminalize and punish people for drug use and even drug selling was counterproductive, and it didn’t stop people from using drugs.”
Gotsch pointed out that reform has been rolling for a while, primarily led by states faced with the ballooning costs of incarceration.
Roots of reform
Reform on the federal level took off in 2008, when the Second Chance Act was signed into law. It provided funding to states to implement programs that would support people getting out of jail or prison.
This kicked off what the National Institute of Justice described as a “cultural shift in the re-entry mindset.” Politicians started thinking about ways to prevent the same people from cycling in and out of jail and prison over and over again.
Another significant reform came in 2010 with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which in part eliminated the mandatory 5-year sentence for first time possession of crack cocaine.
Eight years later came the First Step Act, which many touted as the most consequential reform measure passed.
The New York Times reported that since the passage of the First Step Act, “1,000 federal inmates were granted a sentence reduction for offenses involving crack cocaine.” This was due to old laws that had increased the penalty for crack as opposed to cocaine, laws that were changed in 2010 but did not apply retroactively.
However, not everyone thought the act went far enough. Roy Austin, Jr., a lawyer who worked with former President Barack Obama, wrote in the Huffington Post, "the First Step Act is not good and there is no realistic second step that comes after." He argued that the legislation would affect a small pool of people and the focus should have been on "even more ambitious" reform.
During the years these reforms were passed and implemented, prison populations began to decline. The peak incarceration rate was in 2007 and 2008, according to The Washington Post, when 760 out of 100,000 people in the United States were incarcerated. Since then, the rate has steadily but modestly, declined every year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is now at its lowest rate since 1996.
Advocates are quick to point out that while federal reforms are important, real progress will be made on the state level because the vast majority of the prison population is housed in state prisons and jails.
According to a reportby the Council of State Governments, 30 states have enacted a Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a plan developed to slow the growth of prison populations, or in some cases, reduce the number of people incarcerated and track how effective reforms are by using data.
Utah passed initiative reforms in 2015 to do just that. Initially the plan showed the hoped-for results: the prison population decreased by 9 percent from 2015 to 2017, according to a report released by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. However, as Deseret News reported last week, the population at the Utah State Prison increased dramatically over the last 12 months.
Sen. Mike Lee has spoken extensively about the need to change sentencing laws and co-sponsored the First Step Act. He has spoken at great length about Weldon Angelos, a man who was sentenced to jail for 55 years for selling marijuana to an officer.
“The federal system can serve as a model, but a lot of the work is going to be done on the state level,” said Conn Carroll, a spokesperson for Lee.
Booker’s and Warren’s plans would only address the small sliver of the incarcerated population that is housed in federal facilities. However, advocates point out their announcements also serve another purpose: they bring mass incarceration to the forefront of the nation’s conscience and foster open discussion of a problem that has been festering for decades.
Some remain skeptical of the many attempts at reform, pointing out that they either end up hurting the people they were intended to help or fail to address systemic problems.
Tony Platt wrote in Salon, “If we want to act more boldly and imaginatively, we could also take up Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s call to address the problem of injustice at its root, namely how the police treat ‘countless people’ as if they are not members of a democracy but subjects of ‘a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.’”