The United States has five percent of the world's population and over 20 percent of the world's prison population, with over 2.2 million people in prison. After the federal prison population decreased in 2014 for the first time in 30 years, 2015 brought more progress for those seeking to end mass incarceration in the United States.
Starving the beast
This December, in a sign that the tide is turning against mass incarceration, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted against a plan to build a new jail in San Francisco. During the vote, the Board President London Breed said that the old jail:
needs to come down, but more than a building we need to tear down the system of mass incarceration it represents. I am not going to support another stand-alone jail to continue to lock up African Americans and Latinos in this city.
The fight against solitary confinement
This year also brought increased attention to the way we treat those we have condemned to live in cages. In June, 22-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent over 400 days in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, committed suicide. His case highlighted the inhumanity of the solitary confinement used in many state and federal prisons. Just a few days after Browder's death, National Public Radio and the Marshall Project published a study of the thousands of people released directly from solitary confinement to the street. Prison rights activists and inmates argued that federal Bureau of Prisons director Charles E. Samuels lied to Congress about the federal system's use of solitary confinement.
This year did see significant reforms of solitary confinement. In September, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) settled a lawsuit with a group of inmates who had spent over a decade in solitary confinement. That settlement ended the policy of indeterminate solitary confinement, and of placing inmates in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) based solely on gang affiliation. New York settled a similar lawsuit in December, limiting the maximum solitary confinement sentence to three days for most violations.
Opening the door to decarceration
At the federal level, 2015 brought the largest one-time prisoner release of all time, when 6000 people were released in early November. Most of those prisoners were black or Latino men who had been convicted of drug trafficking crimes. The federal sentencing guidelines that govern the length of sentences were reduced in 2014, and the change was made retroactive. Those affected by the change were finally released this year.
This was also the first full year of implementation of California's Proposition 47, which reduced many felony offenses to misdemeanors and decreased sentences for those crimes. Thousands of inmates were released from California prisons because of Prop 47, and even more people are eligible to have their criminal records changed. Many law enforcement leaders claimed that Prop 47 led to increases in crime, but others—including former San Diego police chief William Landsowne—continued to praise the law as a step in the right direction toward fixing our revolving-door legal system.
We still have a long way to go to achieve substantial criminal legal and sentencing reform. Ta-Nehisi Coates forced us to consider the racist roots of our current system of mass incarceration, arguing that "it is not possible to truly reform our justice system without reforming the institutional structures, the communities, and the politics that surround it." Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Grassley of Iowa sponsored a bill to significantly reform mandatory minimum sentencing, which removes sentencing discretion from judges and plays a serious role in the size of our prison population. And after President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff explained why focusing on sentencing reform for "nonviolent" offenses is not enough.
While federal and state sentencing reform gave thousands of people years of their lives back, thousands more remain in prison. For most of the nation's prisoners, their only hope for returning home is to receive clemency: a pardon or a sentence commutation from their governor, for state inmates; or from President Obama, for those in federal custody.
In 2014, the Department of Justice encouraged people serving federal sentences for nonviolent offenses to seek executive clemency—that is, mercy from the president of the United States to shorten their sentences. A group of lawyers—including federal defenders, the ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers—started Clemency Project 2014, to provide free legal assistance to people who qualify for executive clemency under the DOJ's stated guidelines.
Nearly 33,000 people serving federal sentences applied for clemency; over half did not meet the criteria set out by DOJ. The remaining 15,000 applications seemed stuck in a bureaucratic process that caused many to fear that the Obama administration would leave office before many clemency decisions were made. As of mid-December, President Obama had the lowest clemency rate of any president other than George H.W. Bush. And then, just a week before Christmas, President Obama announced that he had commuted the sentences of 95 more people. Most of those men and women had been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.
Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative and hero to those of us who work to create a more just legal system, published his book Just Mercy in late 2014; the paperback was the #10 bestselling book of 2015. May his words on mercy guide us into a more just 2016:
I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.