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Rights group calls on U.S. to reform harsh criminal sentences

Human Rights Watch report says US laws require disproportionately severe punishment

Momentum for criminal justice reform in the United States continues to increase amid harsh sentencing laws that have led to a burgeoning prison population — resulting in the world's largest reported incarcerated population and highest rate of imprisonment, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

"The 'land of the free' has become a country of prisons," said Jamie Fellner, co-author of "Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution," a 36-page report published Tuesday. "How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?"

Between 1979 and 2009, according to the report, the number of prisoners in state and federal facilities increased almost 430 percent. And nearly three decades of harsh sentencing laws have left the U.S. with over 2.2 million men and women behind bars, most for nonviolent crimes. More than 53 percent of that population is serving time for nonviolent offenses, such as low-level drug dealing.

Trying youth as adults, the report adds, has also contributed to high incarceration rates. In 2011, more than 95,000 youth under 18 were in adult prisons and jails across the U.S., said the report, citing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The U.S. has also increasingly resorted to overly punitive approaches to immigration law enforcement. More than 40 percent of federal criminal prosecutions and nearly 30 percent of new admissions are for criminal prosecutions of border crossers, according to the report.

“Imprisoning migrants with minor or no criminal records before deporting them often affects people seeking to reunite with their families in the U.S. or fleeing persecution,” the report said.

Proponents of criminal justice reform have also have pointed to the privatization of prisons as an additional factor for the high incarceration rate.

In the last decade, the federal government has had the fastest growing number of people in private prisons, largely due to federal agencies contracting with private prisons for immigration detention, according to a 2011 report published by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The two largest private prison companies had over $2.9 billion in revenue in 2010, according to JPI's report, entitled "Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies.”

Private prison companies have influenced model legislation such as "three-strikes" — state-enacted statutes which mandate harsher sentences on habitual offenders — which have driven up incarceration rates.

"Such policies have sent more people — especially people convicted of drug offenses — to prison, and keep them there longer, thus increasing the total number of people in prison," the JPI report said.

Such policies have ultimately created more opportunities for private prison companies to bid on contracts to increase revenues, JPI's report added. 

Calls for reform

The Obama administration has recently taken steps to curtail the burgeoning, and costly, U.S. prison population — fueled to a great extent by low-level marijuana possession arrests. In August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government would not automatically impose charges that lead to mandatory sentences on low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Proponents of reform have urged Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. The measure, supported by the Obama administration, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders and apply more lenient crack cocaine sentencing policies. The House Judiciary Committee is weighing the bill, after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved it in January.

And last month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved recommendations from Holder that would shorten federal prison sentences for most drug dealers. The proposals would reduce sentencing guidelines across drug types.

If approved, the commission estimates its proposed changes would affect about 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants. That, in turn, would reduce the federal prison population by about 6,550 inmates over five years. The commission’s recommendations go to Congress for a vote this month. If approved, they would become law by Nov. 1.

These are steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done, both at the federal and state levels, HRW’s Fellner said: “There is growing national recognition that disproportionately harsh laws are not needed

Source: U.S. Department of Justice statistics

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