Silver Lining: COVID brings prison reform into mainstream
The United States — with 2.3 million people behind bars — jails more people than any other country. Mass incarceration destroys lives and families, especially in communities of color that bear the brunt of this egregious system that costs the public huge sums of money and does little to actually keep people safe.
Mass incarceration has been blatantly misused for decades. But the pandemic brought the injustices and deep-rooted racism of this system to the forefront, as incarcerated Americans faced an increased risk of illness and death in crowded, unsafe prisons — in many instances for minor drug offenses that are now legal and profitable. Across the country, one in five people in prison have tested positive for the coronavirus, compared to one in 20 in the general population. Tragically, nearly 3,000 incarcerated people have passed away.
At the same time, the pandemic provided an unprecedented opportunity to show that a new way is possible.
Between March and June 2020, state and federal prison populations dropped by more than 100,000 people, according to a study by the Marshall Project and the Associated Press. This was an 8% decrease in prison population across the country, compared to a 2.2% decrease in all of 2019. Here in Oregon, the decrease has been even more substantial. Between March 2020 and January 2021, Oregon's prison populations were reduced by 12%, over 1,7000 people.
The reduction was driven in part by efforts to release low-risk and elderly people, as well as COVID precautions that prevented the transfer of inmates from county jails to state and federal prisons. Another cause for the reduction was that court closures meant fewer people were receiving sentences and parole officers were sending fewer people to prison for low-level violations.
I have long believed that incarceration is the wrong way to address low-level or non-violent offenses. The pandemic finally brought this idea to the mainstream and highlighted that what was once considered radical isn't so radical after all.
As Rachel Cohen wrote in the New York Times in March, "across the country, all levels of government put in place policies that just a few months earlier would have been seen by most people — not to mention most politicians — as radical and politically naive."
Now, our challenge is to capitalize on this momentum to create long-lasting change that will dismantle our current system of mass incarceration that does more harm than good.
It's one reason that I'm working to end the failed War on Drugs, an urgent matter of criminal and racial justice. The continued enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws results in over 600,000 arrests annually, according to 2017 FBI crime statistics, and Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white counterparts, despite equal rates of use across populations.
What's more, people of color are historically targeted by selective enforcement and discriminatory sentencing practices. Black men receive federal drug sentences that are 19% longer than sentences imposed for white men, while Latinos are nearly 6.5 times more likely to receive a federal sentence for cannabis possession than non-Hispanic white people. This means that, throughout this pandemic, it has generally been people of color serving the longest sentences in dangerous settings.
Last month, I reintroduced legislation to put an end to the failed prohibition of cannabis and help restore the lives of those?hurt?by the?policies of the past. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act will decriminalize cannabis at the federal level and require federal courts to expunge prior convictions and conduct re-sentencing hearings for those still under?supervision.
While this legislation would help build on the work of reducing prison populations, we can't forget the many pressing issues facing people right now inside America's prisons.
In the last year, people began to pay more attention to these abuses, as incarcerated individuals were consistently denied access to soap, hand sanitizer and masks. The pandemic also shed a brighter light on prison labor abuses, the need for better health care, and the everyday injustices — like astronomical phone fees — that those in prison face. On the road to rehabilitation and reentry, this abuse and exploitation is unacceptable.
As we come out of this pandemic, we can't go back to how things were before. Now is the time to build on the progress made and reimage our country's criminal justice system. Only then will we be able to leave the horrific legacy of mass incarceration behind.
Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat, represents Oregon's 3rd Congressional District and is founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
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