THE BLOG
11/03/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Break the Cycle of Mass Incarceration

When politicians want to show their constituents that they're concerned about their safety and well-being, they'll say that they're "tough on crime." It's an easy enough position to take. Nobody likes crime. Everyone wants to live in safety.

But the reality behind the rhetoric is a system of mass incarceration that's short on genuine solutions to crime and rife with abuses. Incarceration rates in the United States are the highest in the world. Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled to well over 2 million, an increase largely driven by heavier penalties for non-violent offenses. More people are serving longer sentences than ever before. At the same time, as prison building costs escalate, many states have cut funding for rehabilitation, education and other programs.

Rigid laws that punish minor, non-violent crimes with harsh penalties are ineffective. They rip families apart, eviscerate young people's futures, and warehouse human beings instead of rehabilitating them.

And while mass incarceration is repugnant in its own right, the discriminatory nature of incarceration in the US today compounds the problem. Overwhelmingly people of color -- especially young men -- pay an unequal price in the criminal justice system. U.N. expert bodies charged with monitoring countries' compliance with their human rights obligations have condemned racial disparities in the US criminal justice system, and called on the US government to address the "school-to-prison pipeline" and reform mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

As a nation that claims to value fairness and equality for all, mass incarceration is a disgrace. But it doesn't have to be this way. And this Election Day, Californians have an opportunity to take a significant step toward ending it.

Proposition 47 is an initiative that shows that stopping the cycle of mass incarceration and harsh sentences is not only achievable, it is eminently sensible.

The initiative will reduce sentences for those who have committed low-level, non-violent offenses. For example, non-violent drug possession or petty theft and shoplifting will no longer be considered felonies, but will be mandatory misdemeanors.

Those who have already been convicted under a felony charge but show no threat to society will have their sentences reduced. Those who would have fulfilled their debt to society after being convicted of a misdemeanor will be released.

But the initiative isn't solely concerned with reducing the number of nonviolent prisoners. It is also designed to remove those factors that contribute to crime in the first place.

By releasing nonviolent offenders and reducing the amount of time served for low-level crimes, the state will save hundreds of millions of dollars. Some estimates show that the savings could be as high as $1 billion.

That's money that can be invested in victim service and in stopping crime before it starts.

It's money for improving schools and invested in truancy prevention so that children can receive an education to learn a trade or a profession rather than being lured into crime.

It's resources for substance abuse treatment, so those living with addiction can receive rehabilitation instead of a prison sentence. Many of those imprisoned on low-level drug charges are repeat offenders, which only proves that jail isn't the solution to drug addiction. Treatment is.

The state is already spending this money -- taxpayer money -- to keep nonviolent offenders behind bars. Wouldn't everyone benefit from having that money spent on improving lives?

This is a common sense approach to preventing crime and investing in human potential, rather than perpetuating human misery. It is time for California to lead by example by approving Proposition 47.

If the U.S. is to live up to the ideal of a defender of human rights, we must invest in a better future for everyone.