Mayor Pete’s Plan to Cut Incarceration in Half is Bold, and Just Might Work

Mayor Pete Buttigieg just made a very good move: On July 12, he laid out a comprehensive criminal justice reform plan that looks to cut incarceration in half by reforming nearly every component of the criminal justice system—from over-policing and over-sentencing to in-prison and post-incarceration reforms.

The bold new proposal is part of a larger, ten-part plan to court black voters, which Buttigieg has dubbed the “Douglass Plan” after the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

If implemented, the reforms included in the criminal justice section would drastically cut the number of incarcerated Americans, save taxpayers money and end some of our cruelest law enforcement practices. These are all good ideas.

Let’s start with Buttigieg’s plan to address the failed War on Drugs—one of the shortest parts of his plan. There’s some good stuff here.

Buttigieg wants to end incarceration for mere drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug crimes, and legalize marijuana nationwide. In addition, he wants to retroactively apply sentence reductions to those serving drug sentences. Those locked up for marijuana, he says, would see their convictions expunged. This alone could get Mayor Pete close to his goal of slicing incarceration in half, at least at the federal level. According to the Bureau of Prisons, 45.3 percent of federal inmates—more than 75,000 people—are incarcerated for drug charges. Meanwhile, at the state level, 15 percent of prisoners—190,100 people—are serving time with a drug offense as their “most serious crime.”

Another major part of Buttigieg’s plan to slash how many folks are put behind bars lies in shortening sentences. First, he hopes to end mandatory minimums. In 2017, 13,577 Americans were issued a mandatory minimum sentence, and more than 60 percent of them didn’t receive relief from it. Indeed, the average sentence for someone who receives a mandatory minimum is 138 months, whereas the average for non-mandatory minimums is only 28 months. Giving judges more discretion over sentence length will lead to shorter sentences for those who don’t pose a public safety threat, while still allowing for long sentences for those who do.

Too, Buttigieg wisely proposes establishing an independent clemency commission, which would be tasked with commuting sentences for those who are incarcerated “beyond what justice warrants.” Placing those decisions in the hands of an independent group could lead to thousands of Americans being freed.

As it stands, the Executive Branch uses the power to commute as a way to ensure the other branches don’t overstep their bounds in criminal justice. But that power has been used so infrequently in recent administrations that former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once asked, “Does that show that something is not working in the system?” With the exception of Obama, recent administrations have used the power of clemency more and more sparingly. For example, Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Trump combined have granted fewer commutations than President Truman did on his own.

Buttigieg also wants to end the practice of incarcerating folks for their inability to pay legal fines and fees. Often when individuals are jailed for not paying fines and fees, they also lose their license to drive—thus, when they get out of jail, they are unable to get to and from work. This traps poor people in a cycle of incarceration by stripping them of their means to pay the legal fees they were locked up for in the first place.

If Buttigeig’s plan were to be put in place, we’d see a lot less recidivism. The mayor proposes reforming probation and parole to make it so discretionary violations, like missing a check-in or being late for curfew, don’t lead to re-incarceration.

He also wants to make it easier for formerly-incarcerated individuals to find work. First, Buttigieg is proposing banning the practice of asking about criminal history on job applications, a practice which is already outlawed in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Additionally, he is suggesting the Department of Labor issue guidance on how to prevent implicit bias and encourage employers to hire folks with a criminal past. Both of these proposals would remove the stigma of hiring individuals who were previously behind bars. Right now, as a study from the Manhattan Institute shows, there’s a 20 percent reduction in recidivism for people who are able to find work immediately after incarceration.

With the world’s highest population of incarcerated people, it’s no secret America’s criminal justice system is broken. Buttigieg’s new plan is an ambitious proposal that shows he’s serious about finding a way to repair it. Other candidates should take notes.

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Dan King

Dan King is a senior contributor at Young Voices, where he covers civil liberties and criminal justice reform. His work has appeared at Reason, The American Conservative, The Week, and The Weekly Standard.

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