Sentencing Reform in the Modern Age

By: Jacob Longman

The Louisiana Law Review is hosting a symposium on sentencing reform titled, “Throw Away the Key: Sentencing Reform in the 21st Century” on Friday, January 22. Theories will be debated and solutions to the problems which plague our prison system will be proffered. If you intend to practice criminal law or have an interest in the high rates of incarceration in our state, the symposium is worth attending.

Sentencing reform is a complicated issue. Unlike most complicated issues plaguing the United States, there is general bipartisan agreement on the solution. Without a doubt, Democrats and Republicans agree, we need to scale back mandatory minimums.

A good example of the rise in incarceration stems from the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s. Between 1986 and 1988, the number of users in New York City alone rose 300% and children of the addicts suffered the most. During the same period of time, the amount of abused and neglected children rose from 2,627 to 8,521. In 1987, 73% of death in abuse and neglect cases resulted from the use of crack. In 1985, it had been 11%.

By 1990, NYPD’s 34th Precinct in Washington Heights reported 10,027 crimes, including 105 murders, in its area of roughly 3 square miles. Overwhelmed by the amount of crime, another precinct house had to be opened to reinforce the same area.

Nationally, the trends were no better. From 1984 and 1994, the homicide rate among black males aged 18-24 rose by 30%.

As a result, policies that were “tough on crime” became the norm nationwide. Laws which prescribed a certain amount of years for a crime, no matter the circumstances, were passed by both Congress and state governments. For instance, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated that anyone caught with 5 grams of crack would be sentenced to 5 years without parole. In 1988, the Act was amended and stated that with a prior conviction of crack use only 3 grams would be required on subsequent convictions to qualify for the minimum.

In 1994, Bill Clinton signed into law a bill that instituted a three-strikes rule that applied in federal court. Under this rule, if convicted of two previous serious offenses, a final serious violent felony conviction mandated that the defendant be sentenced to life. Since the offense was federal, there would be no parole. As a result, the number of inmates sentenced to life in prison skyrocketed by 83% between 1992 and 2003.

The collateral effects of these laws, and their state law equivalents, have been enormous. The United States currently leads the world in incarceration, ahead of countries such as China, North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Though we only have 4.4% of the world’s population, we contain 22% of its prisoners. While federal inmates make up a portion of the offender population, the vast majority of those incarcerated are state inmates.

Louisiana leads the nation in this category. The state imprisons roughly 1 out of 86 residents. Nationally, 730 out of 100,000 people are in prison. In Louisiana, the per capita rate is more than twice that. This is five times the number of people Iran incarcerates and thirteen times more than the Chinese. As of 2013, approximately 3% of the entire population of the United States was under some form of correctional supervision. Nationally, incarceration costs the United States about 80 billion dollars a year.

Furthermore, mass incarceration has disproportionately hit the African-American community. By the age of 18, one out of every three African-Americans has been arrested. By the age of 23, the number has risen to 49%. As of 2014, the incarceration rate of African-American males aged 18-19 was 10.5 times that of comparable aged white offenders.

A new bill, backed by both parties, was brought forth in the Senate in early October. The multi-faceted bill aims to cut back on mandatory minimums, kill the three-strikes law, and allow some federal prisoners to apply for parole. Also, it specifically includes provisions for non-violent drug offenders.

Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.” In an age of inescapable jurisdiction, there is a corollary—wherever crime is, a punishment can be administered.

Sentencing reform asks us to consider the aim of our judicial system. As a society, are we interested in a judicial system that rehabilitates? Or one that punishes? Are the two mutually exclusive? Please attend Louisiana Law Review’s symposium on sentencing reform on Friday, January 22nd and decide.