With violent crime rates plunging all over the country, politicians, prosecutors and police are having grave concerns over the tough prison sentences introduced two decades ago.
The crackdown came under former President Bill Clinton, during a time when he told the nation that "gang and drugs have taken over our streets," according to The New York Times
The death penalty was extended, more police officers were enlisted, and more prisons were constructed at a cost of billions of dollars in one the most sweeping reforms in U.S. history. But it turned out that the country had actually turned a corner on crime in the mid-1990s.
The rates for murder, robbery and assault have been cut in half since then, with New York City reporting 328 homicides for 2014, contrasted to 2,245 in 1990. Washington, D.C., had 104 murders in 2014, less than a quarter of the number of people slain 25 years ago, the newspaper reported.
With state and federal prisons packed to the rafters, a fierce bipartisan debate is underway on Capitol Hill on whether the country has gone too far with its incarceration and crime clampdown.
Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin, co-sponsor of a bill to slash federal drug sentences, said, "The judicial system has been a critical element in keeping violent criminals off the street.
"But now we’re stepping back, and I think it’s about time, to ask whether the dramatic increase in incarceration was warranted."
Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is fighting major sentence reductions, but acknowledged, "There are a lot of ideas — prison reform, policing, sentencing — being discussed now that wouldn’t be if we hadn’t had this drop in the crime statistics."
The reasons for the drop in crime rates include increased policing of urban "hot spots," the prevention of drug dealers plying their trade in public places, the aging of the population, low inflation rates, and even the decline in lead exposure to young kids, according to the Times.
And there’s another key factor, says Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and co-editor of a 2014 report by the National Academy of Sciences on the consequences of mass incarceration.
"Young people are growing up in a safer environment and behaving more responsibly," he said.
Yet while the number of crimes committed decline, the amount of inmates in state and federal prisons has soared 400 percent — to 1.5 million on an average day. And that figure does even not include the hundreds of thousands held in local city jails, the paper said.
Tougher sentences on drug and gun charges have played their part in reducing crime, but not significantly, according to criminologists.
"The policy decisions to make long sentences longer and to impose mandatory minimums have had minimal effect on crime," Travis said. "The research on this is quite clear."
Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky have supported cuts in federal sentencing, while several states have reduced sentences for low-level nonviolent crimes, the Times noted.
However, as William Otis, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Georgetown University, likes to point out, "When people are incarcerated, they are not out on the street to ransack your home or sell drugs to your high school kid."
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