U.S. Senate Eyes Drug-Sentencing Reform

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A U.S. Senate committee heard testimony Tuesday from the convict behind the hit series “Orange Is the New Black” in a hearing called to improve the federal prison system.
     Piper Kerman, whose conviction for nonviolent drug crimes spawned a memoir that is now a Netflix original series, urged the Senate Committee on Homeland Security to end mandatory-minimum sentencing for drug offenses. The remarks came at an auspicious time, just weeks after President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 such offenders
     Federal Bureau of Prisons director Charles Samuels told Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., during the hearing that just 5 percent of the federal prison population was convicted of a violent crime.
     McCaskill called the amount of money the federal government spends on these nonviolent offenders “astounding” and criticized the expansion of federal jurisdiction over cases historically handled at the state level.
     “It seems to me that the institution is being stubbornly stuck in the status quo,” McCaskill said during the hearing.
     Samuels and Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz also spoke to the committee about how budget constraints spawn safety problems from understaffing and reduce programs meant to ease the re-entry of former prisoners into the outside world.
     The federal prison population has increased more than 700 percent since 1980, and more than 48 percent of inmates have drug-related records, Bureau of Prisons statistics show.
     With 40 percent of federal prison parolees going back to prison with three years, advocates urged the Senate on Tuesday to reform overzealous solitary-confinement practices, improve treatment for mentally ill and drug-addicted prisoners, and ramp up prison programs focused on rehabilitation.
     Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, noted that the average prisoner spends four years in solitary confinement, with some prisoners entering the outside world upon release directly from solitary, a jarring transition that leaves them unprepared to readjust to life in the community.
     “Solitary confinement has no place in federal prisons,” Ofer testified. “Physical separation can sometimes be necessary for safety and for security but isolation is not. Therefore, we call on the Bureau of Prisons and we call on Congress to resolve this issue once and for all.”
     Though Samuels insisted that the BOP policies reserve solitary confinement for extreme circumstances, he and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., later agreed that the department’s position stems from a strict definition of solitary confinement.
     As with Kerman, Jerome Dillard, a re-entry coordinator for Dane County, Wis., spoke to the committee as someone who spent time in prison for a nonviolent drug crime.
     Dillard called for stronger education and job-training programs in federal prisons to help those behind bars have a chance at success when released.
     Members of both panels cited the War on Drugs repeatedly, holding it to blame in part for the boom in the prison population.
     “The war on drugs in the early ’80s had a significant impact on the system,” Samuels said.
     Whatever the cause, both panels and the senators present at the hearing agreed the current policies were not working.
     “I wish I could say, I’d just look at the statistics and say, boy, we’re really nailing that one, we’ve really got that problem solved,” Sen. Ron Johnson said during his opening statement. “We don’t. We’re a long ways from it.”
     Senators present at the hearing agreed there is bipartisan support for legislation that would reduce the prison population and reduce the recidivism rate at the federal level. Booker said he hoped to take up legislation in the fall to address prison overcrowding.
     “So whatever your stripe, this is a system that should offend your values, your morals and your perspective on what is fair and just in America,” Booker said after the hearing.

%d bloggers like this: