The United States has the world’s largest prison population: 2.2 million Americans are currently serving time in our nation’s over 5,000 jails and prisons. That means that there are fewer college campuses in this country than prison yards. It also means that the U.S. has the second highest prison rate in the world. The number of inmates in federal prisons has quadrupled since 1980, as a result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which particularly target non-violent drug offenders. Mandatory minimums call for a minimum required sentencing length for a given crime type – one size fits all. They prevent judges from tailoring sentences to the individual, and do not allow judges to take into account the circumstances which led to the crime. Half of all federal inmates are locked up for nonviolent crimes. Mandatory minimums inhibit judicial discretion, and set out a mandatory sentencing guideline of five years for first time drug offenders.
During the Obama administration, then-Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to seek charges that were reasonable and applicable to each individual case. However, in a May 2017 memorandum, Attorney General Jeff Sessions guided federal prosecutors to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” essentially echoing that the Trump administration will be tough on sentencing. He further stated that should a prosecutor deem a lesser sentence justified, approval by a United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General (or a supervisor thereof), in addition to a documented list of reasons, is required. The memo also relayed that “any inconsistent previous policy of the Department of Justice relating to these matters is rescinded,” which is a vocal exclamation that any judicial discretion progress made by the Obama administration is to be reverted immediately. The 2013 memo from Attorney General Eric Holder instructed that mandatory minimums should only be enforced for “high level or violent drug traffickers.”
There is, however positive news on federal sentencing reform.
Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representatives Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) are spearheading the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 1127/H.R.2435). The legislation would give discretion back to federal judges in sentencing.
Our Jewish values have taught us that justice should not be served based on economic status or skin color, or any other factor: Zechariah 7:9 states: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.” While African-Americans constitute about 12% of the U.S. population (and 13% of drug users), they make up 59% of those convicted of drug offenses. To add insult to injury, African-Americans who are convicted of drug offenses are sentenced to prison at much higher rates and for longer terms than white people convicted of the same offenses.
Jared Diamond is a rising sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at the George Washington University. This summer, he is interning at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in the legislative department.