Pushing to reduce the U.S. prison population, President Barack Obama hosted a forum Thursday that drew more than 100 police chiefs, prosecutors and criminal justice experts to the White House.
“It’s not news anymore that we incarcerate a greater percentage of our people than any other country," said forum moderator Bill Keller. The United States has "four times the rate of China, five times the rate of England, nine times the rate of Germany."
Keller is editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, a journalism organization focusing on criminal justice. It has reported the nation has 600 prisoners for every 100,000 Americans.
The U.S. hands out more severe sentences than other democracies and fails to rehabilitate many inmates before they are released, Keller pointed out.
The president said reforms could improve security while reducing incarceration costs, which he put at $80 billion a year.
"If we had smarter sentencing and thought about dealing with drug offenses more intelligently and had evidence-based approaches to rehabilitation and reducing recidivism," he said, "... that leads us save money to put onto streets for greater police presence and to focus prosecutors' attention on the truly more dangerous criminals."
Earlier Thursday, a Senate committee approved a sentencing bill that would reduce so-called mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The 15-5 bipartisan vote pushes the bill closer to passage on the Senate floor.
The crime dosage
Sentencing needs adjustment, said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.
"If you view a criminal justice system as a response to a sickness in America, then you have to look at sentencing as a dosage," Beck commented, adding that the current crime level requires "a different dosage."
"We have to recognize that all crimes don’t carry the same weight and some crimes involve addiction and mental illness," Beck said, "and we have other pathways that can be more effective than incarceration.”
U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado John Walsh said prosecutors have lessened the use of mandatory minimums, but he would not support dropping all required sentences.
A group of prosecutors has come out against lowering federal mandatory minimum sentences.
"Those mandatory minimum sentences are triggered by a threshold quantity of narcotics," said Steve Wasserman, an officer with the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. His group has issued a report, "The Dangerous Myth of Drug Sentencing Reform."
"In order to be eligible for a mandatory minimum sentence, you have to have been involved in distributing or possesses with the intent to distribute a large quantity of drugs, depending on whether it’s a five-year or 10-year mandatory minimum," Wasserman said.
"Those are entirely appropriate sentences."