Only a few days ago, about 6,000 felons were released from federal prisons, their sentences shortened due a 2014 change made by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).
Immediately, the media was filled with stories featuring panicked headlines such as "Obama's Trick or Treat: 6,000 Convicts Go Free" and "Has Obama Set Loose a New Willie Horton?" (the latter is a reference to a violent criminal released under a program administered by 1988 Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis).
Such accounts have it all wrong, says Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a nonprofit that has been fighting for sentencing reform since 1991. For starters, he notes that the Obama Justice Department fought the prisoner release and that the USSC is independent from the executive branch. As important, he stresses that the people being released are almost all low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no history of violence. There is broad, bipartisan support for sentencing reform, says Ring, and it includes not just liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans but major employers such as Walmart and Koch Industries.
When the Sentencing Commission voted in 2014 to reduce sentencing guidelines for future drug offenders, they also applied the changes retroactively to those already serving time. Over the next decade, that means about 46,000 federal prisoners will see their sentences shortened, with the average reduction amounting to just less than a year.
In a wide-ranging interview with Nick Gillespie, Ring explains why mandatory minimums, which grew in popularity as a response to increasing crime rates throughout the 1970s and '80s, have fallen out of favor even among tough-on-crime legislators; why bipartisan support for criminal justice reform will only continue to grow; and why some of the biggest changes are actually coming from private-sector actors who are moving to hire convicts and reintegrate them into the workforce. Politics matters, says Ring, but the larger culture is far more important in changing both crime and punishment.
Ring also talks about his own experiences in federal prison and what serving time taught the one-time Republican operative, former associate of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and editor of Antonin Scalia's jurisprudence.
"If conservatives looked at [the Department of Justice] like they looked at EPA or FDA," says Ring, "they'd see the same sorts of abuse, fraud, and overzealous abuse of power—and that's what they need to do."
About 11 minutes long.
Camera by Josh Swain and Austin Bragg.
Music: "Firefly" by Poddington Bear
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