Columnists Opinion

It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration

After years of work from activists and organizations like Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes, leaders from both sides of the aisle in Congress are correcting the wrong created in the 1980s when we began the era of over criminalization.

For decades, in Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus was the lone voice calling for reform, but today the winds have changed. Members of Congress from both parties are working on legislation to change the focus on punishment with little regard to the impact on families and communities.

President Barack Obama’s recent historic visit to a federal prison to discuss the need for criminal justice reform showed the best example of how a confluence of events will hopefully lead to a change in a system that has historically been unjust, especially for low-income people in general, and specifically people of color.

The events include conservative Republicans concerned about the cost to society of warehousing people for nonviolent crimes and liberals worried about the United States incarcerating more people than any other country in the world.

Before visiting the prison, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 men and women who were serving time for nonviolent drug offenses and spoke at the annual NAACP Convention, where he laid out his vision of what our nation’s criminal justice system should be like.

“Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system,” the president told the crowd in Philadelphia. “Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity.”

The president’s call for reform is the result of years of work that he and former Attorney General Eric Holder have been doing to fix the system and create a reasonable justice system that recognizes 85 percent of the people behind bars will return to their communities. If the focus is not on rehabilitation, they will not be able to reintegrate into those communities.

Last year, because of the president’s and the attorney general’s leadership, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to authorize judges to reduce drug sentences for more than 46,000 prisoners beginning this November. This decision will mean that those offenders could have their sentences reduced by an average of 25 months.

Decades of draconian prison terms for nonviolent crimes has crippled our community. Even though African Americans are just 12 percent of the American population, we are nearly 40 percent of the United States’ prison population.

The impact on our families has been devastating. Children are languishing in foster care because their parents are in prison. People are prohibited from employment and public housing because they are felons, essentially condemning them to a life outside of traditional society. This sets the stage for little alternative except to return to crime.

When I held a Policing Town Hall earlier this year, I heard from South L.A. constituents who were frustrated by our investment in prisons and expensive equipment for police when our public schools desperately need more funding.

In Los Angeles, the neighborhoods with both the highest incarceration rates and the lowest performing schools are predominantly African American and Latino and California spends nearly seven times more on its prison population than it does on its student population, both of which are 75 percent nonwhite. Nationwide, our country’s investment in mass incarceration over rehabilitation is dismantling families with one in every 28 children having at least one parent in prison.

Our priorities are upside down. I, along with other members of Congress, have heard the stories and we are working with the president to bring permanent change.

Last month, I joined Democrats and Republicans to introduce the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015, which takes a broad-based approach to improving our country’s prisons and sentencing systems.

The legislation tackles the failure of draconian laws that have sent people away to prison for years for nonviolent drug offenses. We need to make sure that our prison system is focused on the most dangerous people — not citizens caught with a small amount of marijuana. Years of mandatory minimums have only left us with overcrowded and costly prisons and communities that are broken.

But we need to fundamentally change how we treat people who have committed crimes. Not every crime deserves a prison sentence. The legislation expands the use of other successful ways of sentencing like probation and drug courts.

And finally, the legislation will work with prisoners so when they have served their time and are ready to return home, they will be able to find safe housing and a steady job so that they do not end up back in prison. We should be rightfully angered that nationwide as many as 60 percent of ex-prisoners are unemployed one year after their release from prison.

When people convicted of a crime have served their time they should be able to work. Preventing them from finding a job will only cause them to return to prison, and the vicious cycle just continues.

We need to declare the era of mass incarceration and oppressive prison sentences over. The time for comprehensive criminal justice reform is now.

Bass represents California’s 37th Congressional District, which includes parts of South Los Angeles and Culver City.