LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) – Mandatory minimum prison sentences ranked high among issues in prison reform for 2011 and the battle against inhumane prison policies remains critical in 2012, advocates say.
A major piece of prison policy reform was the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s June vote to apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 Amendment to Federal Sentencing Guidelines retroactively. The act reduced the disparate sentencing ratio for crack/powder cocaine, which disproportionately affected Blacks. The difference in sentencing for crack cocaine was 100 to 1 to powder cocaine. Powder cocaine was more often associated with White defendants. The change did not eliminate disparity but reduced it to 18 to 1, which eventually made some 12,000 offenders eligible to seek reduced sentences.
Some reforms occurred on the state level and in some cases, prison populations have begun to drop, according to Jennifer Seltzer Stitt, director of Federal Legislative Affairs for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. But at the same time, people understand that old policies are expensive, unfair, inhumane, and must end, she said.
“While the changes to mandatory minimum sentences have not yet been applied retroactively, we have seen at least some of the changes really making a difference in people’s lives. Families are united earlier. Birthdays are celebrated together as opposed to being separated by bars but there’s still a lot left to do,” Ms. Seltzer Stitt said.
Advocates view mandatory minimums as a primary driver of America’s growing prison population and are heavily monitoring some laws on the books and new laws proposed by Congress and the Obama administration.
A 2011 bill includes the Federal Prison Bureau Nonviolent Offender Relief Act of 2011 (H.R. 223), sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). It would mean earlier release for non-violent inmates who are 45-years-old.
Another is the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2011 (H.R. 2242), introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). It aims to eliminate disparities in crack cocaine sentencing by eradicating mandatory minimums and bringing the 18 to 1 disparity to 1 to 1 sentencing for cocaine.
Advocates say with mandatory minimum sentencing, punishment does not necessarily fit the crime and some sentencing discretion should be left to judges.
Meanwhile, bills that contain mandatory minimums and illogical sentencing, or that disproportionately affect one group should not go forward, they argue.
“We can’t ignore the fact that when we look at prisons, the majority of people who are serving time are Black and Brown. So anytime you see one of these laws passing, you have to raise your voice and call your member of Congress,” Ms. Seltzer Stitt said.
A significant reform in New York was elimination of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and recognition of drug addiction as a disease and not criminal behavior, according to Attorney Soffiyah Elijah, director of the Correctional Association of New York.
“The next challenge is implementation of the new sentencing structure on drug charges. We have been successful in getting the public discourse to shift regarding prison reforms,” she told The Final Call.
Reform in the lives of prisoners must include dialogue around brutality they suffer at the hands of guards, often for small offenses, such as rolling their eyes, said Elaine Brown, activist and former Black Panther Party leader.
Reforms dealing with the number of people in prison have to address the parole process, fingerprinting process and fundamental laws enacted under former President Bill Clinton, she continued. The year 2011 and previous years have been impacted by Mr. Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Control Act that authorized mandatory minimum sentences in the first place, she said.
The prison population literally doubled over 10 years and people served extraordinary terms that snowballed into other challenges, she said.
“As a result, we’ve got this three strikes crime bill, which we didn’t have before. We’ve got this trying juveniles as adults bill, and mandatory time, and these three issues have locked up so many of our men,” Ms. Brown said.
She is eyeing for repeal a “Two Strikes” crime bill in Georgia, which sends felons convicted of very serious crimes to prison for life without parole, and a bill that allows the state to try children as adults.
People can argue these are criminals but crimes yesterday did not carry the extreme time sentenced today, she said.
“This was not a solution. What it has done is not only affected our communities in terms of reducing the number of men that live and work and are reproductive, but when you talk about the breakdown of the Black family, all of this comes with this Clinton legislation,” said Ms. Brown. She is part of a coalition supporting Georgia inmates who went on strike to press for improved education, health programs and payment for work.
Nation of Islam member Henry Leonard’s right to receive Final Call newspapers in the David Wade Correctional Center in Louisiana represented a victory for inmates seeking religious freedom, noted Abdullah Muhammad, National Prison Reform student minister for Nation of Islam.
Claiming The Final Call published offensive content, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections issued a statewide ban on the publication in 2005. Mr. Leonard sued and, in 2010, a federal judge ruled that the restriction was a violation of Mr. Leonard’s First Amendment rights.
The state appealed and, in November 2011, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Fifth Circuit upheld the decision. His determination caused the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nation of Islam to become allies in the struggle for justice and the ACLU of Louisiana backed his charges that the prison violated his right to free exercise of religion, Mr. Muhammad said.
“The prison officials attempted to stop the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan from fulfilling Isaiah 42:7, ‘He will open blinded eyes and bring the prisoner out of the prisons and those that sit in darkness out of the prison houses. Verse number one says he, Minister Farrakhan, will not fail,” Student Minister Muhammad said.