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How the Criminal Justice System Hurts Young Americans | Commentary

By Jordan Richardson and Molly Gill While college kids across the country head back to campus this fall, a disturbingly large segment of our young people will be stuck in institutions that are far less productive or educational: prisons.  

This must change. Fortunately, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is doing something about it. U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Robert C. Scott, D-Va., recently introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act. It’s a step in the right direction toward reducing our federal prison population and helping young people improve their lives. Now it's up to Congress to get it to a vote.  

To get a sense of why we need legislation to fix this, consider the estimated 4,500 federal crimes and over 300,000 associated regulations on the books. This is only a best guess — even the Congressional Research Service was unable to produce a complete list. As John S. Baker, a visiting professor at Georgetown Law School, put it, “[t]here is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime.”  

Thanks to an excess of laws and harsh mandatory minimum penalties, the U.S. imprisons young Americans at an astonishing rate. Of the nearly 2.3 million people in prison overall, millennials make up approximately 38 percent of federal prison inmates, and more than half of all inmates in state prisons.  

Our far-too-numerous laws and their excessive punishments combine to impede young Americans from becoming productive members of society. Mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10, 20 years or more for nonviolent crimes deprive young people of their prime resume-building and career-launching years. Crime deserves punishment, but we’re not taking an eye for an eye — too often, it’s more like a life for an eye.  

Take the case of Weldon Angelos, who sold small amounts of marijuana while in possession of a gun. No one was hurt or threatened, but mandatory minimum sentencing laws required a 55-year prison term for the 25 year-old Utahan. While his actions were indeed illegal, incarcerating a 25-year-old until he’s an octogenarian for a non-violent offense defies any sense of fairness or reason.  

Weldon’s is but one of thousands of lives that have been ruined due to the injustices in our criminal justice system. For the last 30 years, Congress has passed too many laws carrying penalties that are too harsh, and too many people have been sent to prison when lesser punishments are available. As a result, we have the world’s largest prison population. A quarter of our federal crime fighting budget is spent on prisons — but half of all federal prison beds are filled with drug offenders such as Weldon.  

It doesn’t take much time in prison to make the journey back into society a serious challenge for a young lawbreaker. Once a young person has a criminal record, a target is painted on their resume. Almost 90 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks on their applicants, and two-thirds of colleges ask about criminal history. Understandably, these challenges often lead to a “revolving door” phenomenon, where many young people turn back to crime soon after serving their original sentence.  

The SAFE Justice Act, currently with the subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, reverses the current trend of unnecessarily harsh sentencing. In adopting the recommendations of the House Judiciary Committee’s Over-Criminalization Task Force, the SAFE Justice Act ensures fairer outcomes in three primary ways.  

First, the bill requires the attorney general to publish a list of all federal laws that carry criminal penalties so the public can easily read them. This reform provides transparency so the maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” finally makes sense again.  

Second, it reduces the use of mandatory minimum sentencing by focusing on the leaders and organizers of drug rings, rather than low-level, nonviolent offenders such as Weldon Angelos. Instead of locking people up for youthful mistakes, the law encourages alternative sentencing or probation to avoid stigmatizing a young person for the rest of their career.  

Finally, it promotes education and training for current prisoners, so they can adjust to society upon release and find meaningful employment to care for their families.  

These reforms are smart, sensible, and could truly lead to lowering the federal prison population. We’ve recklessly locked up too many young Americans for too long, and it's time for Congress to institute policies that encourage their success. Passing the SAFE Justice Act is their best shot.  

Jordan Richardson is a senior policy analyst at Generation Opportunity, and Molly Gill is the government affairs counsel with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).  

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