Amy Klobuchar has a bold plan for criminal justice reform. If it’s realized, within a month, tens of thousands of people could be freed from American prisons. And notably, this could be accomplished without the need for any congressional changes or reforms. Instead, Klobuchar will use the power of presidential pardon to roll back the mass incarceration that has resulted from the war on drugs.
It’s no secret that the U.S. has a prison problem. The nation incarcerates more people per capita that any other country in the world. Ultimately, it houses more than 20% of the world's prison population, despite the fact that the U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the world's population. All in all, the American criminal justice system keeps almost 2.3 million people confined, and drug offenses account for nearly half a million people.
In order to reduce these numbers, Klobuchar wants to establish a bipartisan clemency advisory board that would give recommendations on who deserves a presidential pardon or commutation. Today, clemency applications have to get through a seven step process. With these new changes, there would be just two, which would greatly expedite and improve processes.
To justify the action, Klobuchar turns to law professors Rachel E. Barkow, from New York University, and Mark Osler, from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. In a paper, they previously described what this clemency system could look like and how it would work from a technical perspective. And to silence the naysayers who feel that such reforms are unnecessary, Klobuchar referenced Josephine Ledesma.
Ledesma was a first-time, nonviolent drug offender who received the mandatory minimum sentence for her charges. That mandatory minimum sentence? Life in prison. Ledesma never used drugs. She never sold drugs. Rather, her crime was handing over money that she knew was being used for drugs. She served more than 24 years in federal prison before receiving clemency from President Barack Obama in 2016. Klobuchar notes that there are thousands of people like Ledesma who are still imprisoned, and she argues that they are only still imprisoned because of America’s malfunctioning clemency system.
Yet, while the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses is not insignificant, in order to end mass incarceration in America, reforms will have to go much farther than the “low hanging fruit” of nonviolent drug charges.
Instead of releasing people from prison after they are convicted, researchers who advocate for criminal justice reform state that we need to intervene before people become incarcerated. As a result, in addition to reforming our drug laws, experts assert that we need to invest in social services and community-based alternatives. Not only do these services benefit those with substance use issues and decrease their incarceration rates, they also assist people who are at risk of incarceration for other offenses.
Specifically, research indicates that Medicaid expansion has a notable impact on crime reduction, while investing in rehabilitative community programs has been shown to decrease the number of individuals who are incarcerated for technical violations of their probation. This last intervention is particularly important, as there are currently some 840,000 people on parole in the U.S. and a staggering 3.6 million people on probation.
In addition to the above, Klobuchar notes that we need to extend the First Step Act, which changed the overly harsh sentencing laws related to nonviolent drug offenders and reformed our federal prisons. The reforms in the First Step Act only apply to people who are held in federal prisons. As a result, the new law doesn't help nearly 90% of people who are incarcerated in state and local facilities.
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