Biggest Legal Stories of 2013
Andrew Cohen has written on Politico naming the 10 biggest legal stories of 2013. Coming in at Story #4 is the overcrowding of American prisons. "Not only are U.S. prisons terribly overcrowded—about one in every 35 adults is either in prison, on probation or parole. Not only do they impose exorbitant costs upon taxpayers—approximately $29,000 per year per inmate. Not only has mass incarceration been exposed as an unsustainable national policy for which the international community showers us with derision. But there’s mounting realization that the prisons themselves are places of unspeakable abuse and mistreatment. “The conditions of confinement in this country have never been worse,” Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative told Stephen Colbert earlier this month." This is something that public defenders have been saying for at least a decade if not more. It is sapping the budgets of states and denying them the necessary funding for other vital projects like education and early childhood development.
Coming in at Story #7 is the move toward sentencing reform, clearly related to story #4. "Perhaps owing to the atrocious state of America’s prisons in 2013, this year also witnessed a growing realization by members of both parties that something dramatic must be done to reduce mass incarceration. Pending now before Congress is a bipartisan piece of legislation titled the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would give federal judges more discretion to depart downward from mandatory minimum sentences. Congress is also considering the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would further reduce disparities in punishment for drug offenses. In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced various ways federal officials would seek to shrink existing prison populations by releasing older and non-violent inmates. It was, indeed, a very good year for advocates of sentencing reform."
The political classes are finally realizing that the War on Drugs, the ending of indeterminate sentencing, the trend toward 3 Strikes Laws, and similar draconian criminal justice policies, are in the end unsustainable. Yes, theoretically it would be possible to incarcerate the 22 million Americans, or 9|PERCENT| of the population, who use illegal drugs. (See http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/08/study-22-million-americans-use-illegal-drugs-3/P).
But of course we could do nothing else, not educate our children, not defend the country, not build highways, not protect our food supply. Something has had to give for some time. And if these trends continue, you'll be seeing both prison and sentencing reform in the coming years.