Mandatory minimum sentencing has contributed to a steep rise in our federal prison population. More than 14 percent of Americans are behind bars and the federal prison system has more than quadrupled since 1980. First time non-violent drug offenders can often serve long-term prison sentences with no option for parole. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Senator Rand Paul acknowledged drug related sentences “disproportionately affect African-Americans.” African-Americans and Latino-Americans account make up over 58 percent of our prisons, despite being only 25 percent of the American population. However, the true rallying point for many conservatives is the reality that these long-term prison sentences and a growing prison population are not helping to reduce crime.
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law. This law written by Democratic Representative Danny Davis and Republican Senator Rob Portman offered federal grant funding to state and local government agencies and nonprofit organizations to support innovative efforts to reduce re-arrest rates and overall prison populations. In my home state the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative expanded its parole programs and invested in transition plans that included employment guidance, mentoring and counseling services for ex-offenders. Between 2005 and 2011 Michigan saw 5,000 fewer ex-offenders return to prison. In addition, between 2002 and 2008 Michigan’s prison population fell by over 12 percent and the state closed more than 20 correctional facilities.
Compelling research that proves investment in prison reform and ex-offender reentry pays off is an attractive sell to budget conscious ealize that this trend is not sustainable. Our public officials need to be smart on crime and invest in programs that will allow our prison systems to offer true rehabilitation. These commitments will lead to less American’s behind bars.