This nation’s criminal justice system is broken.
Our laws and resources ought to focus on prosecuting and imprisoning the most dangerous and violent members of our society.
Unfortunately, the reality is that we lock up scores of individuals for nonviolent, low-level offenses, usually drug-related.
These individuals are disproportionately black men.
Although blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, they are arrested more than twice as often on drug charges.
It would be one thing if we offered those who violate federal drug laws a chance to receive treatment. Instead, they face stiff mandatory minimums that have destroyed countless lives and families.
For example, Weldon Angelos, a man with no prior criminal record, was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for selling $350 worth of marijuana under a mandatory minimum.
The judge was forced to observe the minimum against his will, calling it “unjust, cruel and irrational” while noting that the sentence far exceeds the minimum for crimes such as hijacking, rape and kidnapping.
Are we really trying to send the message that selling a few hundred dollars’ worth of marijuana is worse than these violent crimes?
The incarcerated and their families suffer, but taxpayers are the ones footing the bill.
The Department of Justice will spend approximately a third of its $27 billion budget on prisons this year, an unsustainable amount that is draining resources from all its other efforts.
The money spent keeping Weldon, and others like him, in prison could be used to investigate and prosecute more dangerous offenders. Our prisons are overcrowded to the point where we need to consider each bed as a commodity, only used when absolutely needed.
Thankfully, U.S. senators – Democrats and Republicans alike – have come together to enact change. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would reduce mandatory minimums for drug offenses, give judges more discretion in sentencing people below mandatory minimums, and make many of the sentencing reductions retroactive, allowing those currently in prison to have their sentences reduced.
This is not applied across the board; rather, only those deemed as low-risk will be considered for a reduction.
The bill also expands vital re-entry programming, which will help prevent the cycle of poverty, unemployment and recidivism that plagues former offenders and Maine’s communities.
One of Maine’s senators has been proactive about criminal justice reform. Sen. Angus King co-sponsored the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill that targets reduced sentences as a way to control the prison population.
Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence in support of reforming our criminal justice system, Sen. Susan Collins has been absent from the discussion.
In 2011, she voted against a bill that would have established a National Criminal Justice Commission to provide recommendations on improving the system.
Then, she was voting along Republican Party lines, but now she has no such excuse. Republican Sens. Grassley, of Iowa; Lee, of Utah; and Cornyn, of Texas, played important roles in the crafting of this bill, along with several Democratic senators.
Collins has prided herself so far on being a leader in bipartisanship. In May of this year, she was named the most bipartisan senator by The Lugar Center and Georgetown University, as part of their “Bipartisan Index.”
Yet it is disappointing that she has been absent from the most bipartisan issue that Congress is currently tackling – one where even President Obama and the Koch brothers agree.
Our nation is beginning to realize that we cannot arrest our way out of drug issues.
This approach perpetuates racism, hurts communities and wastes tax dollars.
The answer is more nuanced than that, involving rehabilitation, education and supervision, in addition to law enforcement.
We are finally on the cusp of a good step in the direction of meaningful reform, and with Collins’ help, we can create a criminal justice system that benefits and supports our communities.
I urge her to vote for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.