As states loosen penalties for offences, such as marijuana possession, public opinion has turned against incarceration for minor crimes. Around 2.3 million people are currently jailed in the US.
A sweeping state pardon of people convicted of nonviolent crimes in Oklahoma is giving hope to families and activists that prison reform is coming sooner than expected across the United States.
Republican Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt announced on November 1 that he would sign the release of over 500 convicted men and women, the largest single-day commutation in US history. “Today we are implementing the will of the people … I truly believe that,” Stitt told reporters at a press conference.
The commuted sentences were the result of a bipartisan law that classifies some nonviolent property and drug felonies as misdemeanours. Their sentences were shortened to one year and classified as ‘time served’.
Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steve Bickley said that nonprofit groups and other organisations helped those inmates with commuted sentences with physical and mental health, employment and obtaining personal identification documents.
“Everyone in Oklahoma knows someone in jail,” Blaine Henson, an Oklahoma school teacher, told TRT World. “It’s usually for a small drug charge or something stupid they did when they were young.”
The US has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a group that advocates for the end of mass incarceration.
One in five of the roughly 2.3m people behind bars in the US is there for a drug charge, according to the PPI. There are over one million arrests for drug possession each year, and there are six times as many arrests for possession as there are for selling narcotics. Many of these arrests lead to prison time.
The US ‘war on drugs’ has been in effect since the 1970s, with domestic policies contributing to these statistics.
However, these policies have disproportionately impacted minority communities, especially African Americans, according to Human Rights Watch.
Recent years have seen some states lessen penalties on drug-related charges. Possession of marijuana, one of the most popular contraband substances in the US, is decriminalised in a slight majority of US states, with 11 states and the District of Columbia having fully legalised recreational use of the substance.
Still, if the US wants to end mass incarceration, authorities will have to move past the “low hanging fruit” of petty drug charges, the PPI said.
Recently, attention has centred on Kansas, a Midwestern state in which conservative Republicans have a majority in the legislature and a burgeoning prison population.
Kansas prisons hold roughly 1,500 more inmates than they did a decade ago, an increase of roughly 18 percent. However, beds for inmates have only grown about 11 percent in the past decade, local media reported.
As of August, Kansas prisons exceeded their housing abilities by 100 inmates, government documents show.
To alleviate the overcrowding, the Kansas Department of Corrections announced in August it would send up to 600 prisoners, beginning with 360, to a private prison in Arizona at a cost of “millions of dollars”.
The private prison, ran by CoreCivic, charges $74.76 a day per prison for their transport, housing and other costs. The contract will last a year and be renewable up to three years.
The move brought controversy, as CoreCivic has been sued over allegations of understaffing and poor services.
“Sending Kansas inmates to another state is an option we wish we could avoid,” Acting Secretary of Corrections Jeff Zmuda said in a statement.
“Entering into this contract to accommodate growth in the prison population is the best option available at this time for the safety of our staff and inmates.”
But one advocacy group believes there is a better way to alleviate Kansas’s prison woes.
There is “one simple action by the state could free up hundreds of beds, save millions of tax dollars, and return hundreds of people to their families”, according to a statement delivered to TRT World by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a labour union for prisoners that advocates for prison abolition.
IWOC pointed to the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines Act (KSGA), a reform passed in 1992 to change sentencing guidelines based on the severity of the crime and criminal history.
The reform was applied to the sentences of roughly 2,000 inmates, but more than 4,000 remained with sentences that could have been revised, according to the IWOC. Of those 4,263 ‘Old Law’ inmates, about 200 still haven’t been released.
Their release under KSGA guidelines, according to IWOC: Would immediately provide the Department their badly-needed bed space - plus, save Kansas taxpayers nearly $16 million dollars annually by avoiding the short-sided, ill-advised, and expensive outsourcing of Kansas inmates to other states and for-profit facilities.”
Prison reform advocates have called on Democratic Governor Laura Kelly to convert these sentences to KSGA guidelines. Kelly did not respond to requests for comment.
“We need to put the pressure on Kansas lawmakers to commute the sentences of the remaining ‘Old Law’ inmates, and keep up the momentum for sentencing reform,” the IWOC concluded.