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WYPR's Senior News Analyst opines on recent Maryland news.

Harsh Sentencing Has Distorted Criminal Justice System

Attorney General Eric Holder calls some elements of our criminal just system “shameful.” Mix fear with politics and you have a recipe for a public policy disaster. The war on drugs and harsh sentencing guidelines have distorted the criminal justice system in ways that produced what has been called “an epidemic of incarceration.”

America has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners.

The rush to incarcerate began with crack cocaine, “tough on crime” lawmaking – and fear of rampant drug crime. The criminal justice system was transformed into a prison mill in which judges were forced to levy heavy prison time against offenders who were often low-level participants in the drug game.

John Jeffries, former Dean of the University Of Virginia School Of Law, prison populations in the U.S. grew by 392 percent over 32 years – 21 times faster than the population itself. Sentences were based on a grid of prison terms closely related to the amount of drug involved. Other considerations – the age of the defendant his or her role in the alleged crime – were given less and less weight. Judges hands were tied.

Even now, even after these guidelines were eased by a Supreme Court decision many judges are still using them. It was this issue that Atty. Gen. Holder addressed recently in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

Even before Holder’s urging some of the tough-on-crime states have begun dialing back pressure on their prisons. Why? Because the cost had become unsustainable.

UVA’s Jeffries and others have observed that all of this incarceration has produced little if any increase in public safety. It has undermined faith in the criminal justice system.  Among other results: black offenders get sentences far in excess of those imposed on whites convicted of similar crimes.

The question now is whether political leaders at the state and federal levels will act to give the system an infusion of real justice.