In early February, national government officials grappled with trying to implement cost-effective strategies to alleviate mass incarceration.
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is focusing on reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and facilitating reentry for the formerly incarcerated.
Columbia University’s Justice Lab discovered that since the 1980s, an increase in county supervision programs, like probation and parole, without an increase in funding, has contributed to an increase in incarceration.
According to a 2009 Pew Charitable Trusts survey cited by Columbia University, in eight states 90 percent of the budget allocated for corrections, which includes probation, parole and prison, went to incarceration.
According to a Vox article, the National Alliance on Mental Illness documented that about 2 million people with mental illness are jailed every year.
A 2015 American Psychological Association editorial explains the connection between substance abuse, mental illness and the growth of prison populations.
When he was president, Ronald Reagan cut federal funding for community mental health centers. Many critics believe that exposed the mentally ill to criminalization, homelessness and incarceration.
According to the Justice Lab report, from 1980 to 2007 there was a four-fold increase in the number of people on probation and parole, and the number of people in U.S. prisons increased, five-fold, from 474,368 to 2.3 million.
Although there is bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, the White House only supports one aspect of the approach.
“I’m worried that if we just revisit the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which failed during the Obama administration, given this change in the new administration and its views on the sentencing reform component of it, that we’re going to end up with nothing to show for our efforts,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican Majority Whip.
However, the Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley believes that their efforts, along with bipartisan compromise, will pay off.
“It’s a matter of process and around here—nothing gets done unless it’s bipartisan,” said Grassley.
There are various opinions as to how a comprehensive reform bill could be passed five years after the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was introduced and stagnated. However, some on Capitol Hill are ready to move on it now.
“Waiting here for there to be the ultimate global concord to sort this out has yielded five years of nothing, and I’m ready to go forward,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
The sentence-reducing aspect of the legislation would reduce federal prison sentences for drug offenders, who, according to experts, usually suffer from concurrent disorders such as mental illness and drug abuse.
Congressional leaders believe they are close to a bipartisan bill that will alleviate some of the aggravated mandatory minimum sentences.
However, “There are some people around here [who] are just a little bit afraid of what you call an Assistant U.S. Attorneys Association and they’re stopping everything from being done that is so successful in other states,” Grassley said. “When people are willing to stand up to those leaders of the Senate, we’ll get something done in both areas.”
*Since this article was written, the sentencing reform bill has been reintroduced, over the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Department of Justice.
PPI’s “Correctional Control: Incarceration and Supervision by State” issued on June 1, is the first report to aggregate data on all types of correctional control nationwide. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/50statepie.html