Two steps towards sanity
Decades of harsh sentencing policies and aggressive policing in the United States have seen the prison population more than quadruple since 1980 so that, with more than two million people behind bars, a country with just 5 per cent of the global population accounts for a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Almost half are serving sentences for drug-related offences and although levels of drug use are similar among African-Americans and whites, blacks are six times more likely to be locked up.
The impact of mass incarceration on African-American communities has been devastating, shattering family structures and wrecking the life chances of generations of young men. Despite mounting evidence that the criminal justice system was both unfair and ineffective, politicians in both parties have long competed with one another to sound toughest on crime, approving mandatory minimum sentences that have ensured that even minor drug offenders are condemned to years behind bars.
This week, attorney general Eric Holder took a first step towards introducing sanity to the system, instructing prosecutors to sidestep mandatory minimums by not listing quantities of drugs in indictments for low-level offences. The move has been welcomed not only by civil rights campaigners but also by libertarian conservatives who are alarmed by the ballooning cost of the prison system, which came to $80 billion in 2010 alone. A steep fall in violent crime has made voters more relaxed about sentencing policy and more conscious of its costs – both social and economic.
In another welcome move this week, a federal judge ruled that the tactics underlying New York City’s “stop and frisk” programme are unconstitutional, adding that the city had turned a blind eye to the fact that the police were conducting stops in a racially-discriminatory fashion. An outside monitor will oversee sweeping changes to how the policy is implemented so that it no longer discriminates against African-Americans and Hispanics.