Criminal Justice Reform
Issue: The United States leads the world in the massive amount of our citizens we incarcerate per capita. Though we are home to less than 5% of the world’s total population, we incarcerate 25% of the world’s prison population—no other nation comes close to locking up as many of its citizens as we do. The prison-industrial complex has expanded rapidly in recent decades, as the number of crimes in the federal criminal code grew from 3,000 to 5,000 from 1980 to 2013. With the growth of our police state has come the rise of for-profit prisons, which funnel the profits of forced inmate labor to the top 1% in an arrangement that closely resembles the slavery on which our country’s economy was founded.
From the brave women and men putting their lives on the line fighting wildfires in California for less than $2.00 per hour to the inmates who cut meat for pennies an hour, the prison labor system generates over a billion dollars in revenue a year. The racial bias is striking - mass incarceration in America affects African Americans at 5.1 times the rate of whites, and Latinos at 1.4 times the rate of Caucasians. In some states, the disparity for African Americans is greater than 10 to 1, and 4 to 1 for Latinos. Increased incarceration within minority communities is also correlated to historically biased and aggressive policing tactics, which have come to national attention in recent years as numerous videos of police murder go viral.
Proposal: There are a number of steps Congress will need to take to dismantle the massive prison-industrial complex that has taken shape in the U.S, including reforming the 1994 omnibus crime bill. Our goal must be a justice system that is rehabilitative, not punitive. If we want to stop incarcerating individuals who aren’t a threat to society, we must start by decriminalizing simple possession of all drugs and providing inpatient rehabilitation services for addicts.
This decriminalization must apply retroactively to those currently incarcerated for such crimes. We must ban private prisons entirely, and institute a fair minimum wage for all incarcerated individuals who work, whether voluntarily or against their will. If we continue to pay prisoners pennies an hour for backbreaking labor and release them into a world with no job prospects, we cannot be surprised when they return to prison, falling into a dangerous cycle of recidivism.
A federal prison minimum wage is necessary to fairly compensate incarcerated individuals for their hard work and would allow them to save up a small amount of money to get back on their feet upon release. We must also ensure that prisons provide the educational and job opportunities necessary for individuals to rebuild their lives. Anyone sentenced to two years or more in prison should be guaranteed access to at least a two-year community college education, or workforce training programs that include basic life skills training and provide pipelines to employment for in-demand jobs.
Additionally, Congress needs to hear expert testimony and pass bail reform that ensures the accused are assigned bail based on an accurate, scientific analysis of their risk level. We can no longer afford to have a justice system that incarcerates those who can’t afford to buy their way out while they wait to be tried, because that is not justice. When incarcerated individuals are released, they need to be guaranteed stable, safe housing—whether this means reuniting with their family or avoiding unhealthy living situations. To end intergenerational cycles of incarceration, we need to take meaningful steps to end the school to prison pipeline and reform policing tactics.
Students caught with drugs need treatment services that incorporate a standard school curriculum, not expulsion and incarceration. Police departments should protect the safety of the people they serve, and commit to implementing community policing and harm reduction strategies. Only once we stop locking up non-violent individuals and provide incarcerated people with the opportunities they need to truly rehabilitate themselves can we break the cycles of poverty, crime, and recidivism that keep our prisons full.