Reform Excessively Harsh Criminal Sentences
May 6, 2014
Fair and prudent punishment is not only a core human rights principle, but a core principle of American justice that has been neglected for far too long.
Jamie Fellner, co-author of the report and senior advisor to the US Program

(Washington, DC) – Far too many US laws violate basic principles of justice by requiring disproportionately severe punishment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 36-page report, “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” notes that laws requiring penalties that are far longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment have given the United States the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration. These laws have spawned widespread and well-founded public doubts about the fairness of the US criminal justice system.

“The ‘land of the free’ has become a country of prisons,” said Jamie Fellner, co-author of the report and senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Too many men and women are serving harsh prison sentences for nonviolent and often minor crimes. How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?”

Momentum to reduce mass incarceration is growing. Human Rights Watch is seeking to build on this momentum and offer a way forward. Federal and state legislators should ground their moves for reform in core principles of human rights, including prudent use of criminal sanctions, fair punishment, and equal protection of the laws.

To put those principles into practice, Human Rights Watch urges legislators at the very least to:

  • Ensure that the severity of the punishment does not exceed the gravity of the crime;
  • Reform or eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from being able to tailor sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant;
  • Ensure that adolescents and children are treated in a manner appropriate to their age and capacity for change, and that they are not subjected to all the same criminal procedures and sanctions as adults;
  • Reduce or eliminate criminal sanctions for immigration offenders, especially those who have done nothing more than enter the country illegally;
  • End criminal sanctions for possession of illegal drugs for personal use; and
  • Ensure that criminal law is not by its terms or enforcement biased against any racial, ethnic, or religious group, as for example, in the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws against black people in the US.

For at least three decades, punitive criminal justice policies have been the preferred fix to a range of social problems. These include drug trafficking, perceived increases in illegal immigration and youth crime, growing economic inequality, and a frayed safety net.

As a result of this punitive approach:

  • Between 1979 and 2009, the number of prisoners in state and federal facilities increased almost 430 percent; and over half – 53.4 percent – of prisoners in state prisons with a sentence of a year or longer are serving time for a nonviolent offense, such as low-level drug dealing;
  • Youth are often tried and punished as if they were adults. Human Rights Watch estimates based on Bureau of Justice Statistics data that in 2011, more than 95,000 youth under 18 were in adult prisons and jails across the United States; and
  • With regard to race, for every 100,000 white males in the American population, 478 are in state or federal prison; for every 100,000 black males in the population, 3,023 are in prison.

The United States has also increasingly resorted to overly punitive approaches to immigration law enforcement. Over 40 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions and almost 30 percent of new admissions to the federal prison system are for “illegal entry and re-entry” crimes, criminal prosecutions of border crossers. Imprisoning migrants with minor or no criminal records before deporting them often affects people seeking to reunite with their families in the US or fleeing persecution.

The high economic and human costs of harsh policies are forcing their reconsideration across the country. The US Congress, for example, is considering legislative reform that will increase judicial discretion for drug offenses and reduce certain mandatory drug sentences. The Obama administration supports these legislative reforms, has urged prosecutors to avoid bringing charges that carry steep mandatory minimum sentences against low-level drug offenders, and has instituted a new clemency initiative to help some federal prisoners serving unjust sentences to secure release.

These are steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done, both at the federal and state levels.

“Fair and prudent punishment is not only a core human rights principle, but a core principle of American justice that has been neglected for far too long,” Fellner said. “There is growing national recognition that disproportionately harsh laws are not needed to protect public safety and to hold offenders accountable for their crimes. To the contrary, community well-being is best served by fair laws and just sentences.”