GOP Senator: U.S. Has an 'Under-Incarceration Problem'

The war on drugs of the 1980s and mandatory minimum sentences have both contributed to the United States comprising approximately 25 percent of the world’s prison population despite representing about 5 percent of the world’s total population.


However, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is taking a stand against bipartisan legislation to rectify those statics, believing the U.S. has an “under-incarceration problem.”

Cotton said Thursday at the Hudson Institute, a conservative nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., the arguments of advocates of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, currently under review in congress, are “baseless.”

“The bill’s advocates contend that we’re locking up too many offenders for too long for too little, we can’t afford it anyway, and we should show more empathy toward those caught up in the criminal-justice system. These arguments, put simply, are baseless.”

The bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate on October 1 by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-UT), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

In an interview with Vox published Thursday, Booker said the bill is significant as it will stop the “the drift that we’ve seen over the last 20, 30 years toward massive hyper-incarceration.”

He said it’s the first major federal bill that will ultimately reduce the amount of people in federal prison. The bill would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and gun sentences and make those reductions retroactive for some people. A compromise made in April, to garner more Republican support, states the bill no longer applies to anyone convicted of a serious violent felony.

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Cotton said in his speech the belief that there is over-incarceration in the U.S. is false.

“The claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact: for the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted and jailed,” he said. “Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”

He referenced reports about crime during the 1980s and 1990s, which are decades old. He did not acknowledge the fact that millions of people are currently incarcerated in the U.S.

According to The Washington Post, “There were 2.24 million prisoners in the United States as of Dec. 31, 2011. That accounted for about 22 percent of the global prison population (10.2 million). About half of the prisoners in the world were in the United States, Russia or China.”

Blacks now constitute nearly 1 million of the total incarcerated population.

Pardons and Commuting Sentences

Cotton said the “Anglo-American system of justice” has given pardon power to the executive for an unjust sentence, which is “out of proportion to the crime that it shocks the conscience.”

But that power should not be used as a “blunt instrument” resulting in the release of “thousands of violent felons and major drug dealers because of a handful of such cases, many spurious or hypothetical at that.”

In July President Barack Obama, theexecutive over the “Anglo-American system of justice,” visited a federal prison inEl Reno, Okla., to talkabout criminal justice reform, which he has made an important cause during his presidency. He is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.

During his presidency, he has only issued 70 pardons, which fully forgive a crime. That is a low number compared to past presidents. He has denied 1,629 petitions.

Earlier this month, Obama commuted, or shortened, the prison terms of 58 non-violent drug offenders, nearly a third of who were serving life sentences. Many had been serving time for crack cocaine.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a sprawling criminal justice bill, created mandatory crack violations that were much harsher than those for cocaine, even though the two drugs are molecularly similar. The possession of more than five grams of crack is a felony punishable by at least five years in prison. Meanwhile, the conviction of a drug offense involving five grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine is punishable by at least five years in prison.

Most offenders sentenced under the crack cocaine provisions are Black, whereas white offenders make up a much higher portion of those convicted for powder cocaine offenses.

African American representatives of Congress, such as Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), did vote for the act, thinking it would rectify the crack epidemic at the time and not realizing the disparate racial impact the bill would create.

So far, Obama has commuted the sentences of 306 people (including the 58), more people than the last six U.S. presidents combined.

Black, Latino Men and Incarceration

According to the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, together, Blacks and Latinos comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008, even though they make up approximately just one quarter of the U.S. population.

The situation is even bleaker for Black men, who are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. And one in six Black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. “If current trends continue, one in three Black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime,” the NAACP states.

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In an interview with The Atlantic published Sunday, Booker discussed “implicit racial bias.”

“I’ve learned, something called ‘implicit racial bias’ which we all have, Black or white and how that often affects decisions. If you have a Black defendant and a white defendant who are both convicted of the same crime, the Black defendant could be more likely to end up getting a longer sentence or the mandatory minimum whatever the cause, whether it was intended to be so, designed to be so, or just ended up being so. We know we have tools and abilities to do something about it. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

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