Why We Need Sentencing Reform


I’m not usually one to take the political content of Rolling Stone magazine very seriously. Not long ago they offered up “Five Economic Reforms Millennials should be fighting for”, which included guaranteed work for everybody and guaranteed income for everybody, then called landlords “free riders” (the irony is not lost on me) and then when on to suggest making everything owned by everybody. Which is interesting, because whenever that kind of system is put in place, everything of value seems to come into the possession of an unsavory character like Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, or Nicolae Ceausescu. The article finished with the refreshingly reasonable proposal to have a public bank in every state, but this brief relapse of sanity was too little too late.

However, Rolling Stone had a fascinating story in a recent issue. It was the story of Jesse Snodgrass, a California teen suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome (a condition that put him on the Autism spectrum). The local police were doing an undercover operation at Snodgrass’s high school, which in California has been a tactic used to bust those selling drugs to teens. Largely because of his social awkwardness, Jesse had difficulty making friends and although he tried boost his popularity by working out and trying to fit in, it was to no avail.

So Jesse was delighted when a new student named Daniel befriended him. Daniel told Jesse (as well as several other students) that he was struggling with a difficult situation at home (and absent father and an unkind mother if I remember correctly) and desired some marijuana to escape from it all. When Daniel asked Jesse to hook him up with some weed, Jesse agreed, wanting to keep this new friendship going. He tried to delay and delay and wasn’t entirely sure where to get the marijuana in the first place but eventually pressure from Daniel led him to buy and then sell a bag of weed to Daniel for $20. As it turned out, Daniel was an undercover narcotics officer.

Jesse was arrested during a class and now faces some very serious charges. But the fact is that Jesse would have never bought marijuana nor any other drug if Daniel hadn’t have pressured him into doing it. These undercover operations, while they can be useful in finding drug dealers, seem to have evolved into a method of making criminals, not catching them.

This isn’t the first time Rolling Stone has called “entrapment”. They claimed in an article from May 2012 that the five Occupy activists who plotted to blow up a bridge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park were set up by the FBI. To be fair, nobody has reported the other side of the Jesse Snodgrass story. But it is exceptionally difficult for me to imagine what good came of this young man’s arrest. Especially in California, which has a very serious problem with its prison system.

The California prison system is built to house 81,000 inmates. Currently, those facilities are home to 117,000. Additional inmates are being housed in private facilities or even being sent to other states. This is costing the state of California, which is already deep in debt, a staggering sum of money. At the 2014 CPAC panel on criminal justice reform, Grover Norquist, a longtime activist for fiscal conservatism, made an interesting point: In order to get credibility, it can’t be the blue states that lead on this issue. He compared it to Richard Nixon’s trip to China. Norquist also said that many mandatory minimums were the result of a congressman or senator trying to score political points by being “tough on crime” on a particular offense. It seems like the red states are stepping up to the challenge.

One of the more significant reforms made happened in of all places Texas, a state that once faced a problem in many ways similar to the one occurring in California now. In Texas, when George W. Bush was governor, the state actually opened new prisons at a rate of three per year at one point. Today, Texas governor (and a member of the same discussion panel Norquist was on) Rick Perry has proudly proclaimed that the introduction of non-prison options for drug offenders and the reduction of mandatory minimums have been a great success. In fact, the state actually closed down a prison, saving the state government money.

That said, there is an ill-advised alternative direction that unfortunately many states (often red states but also blue ones) are turning toward. This is the rather bizarre practice of privatizing prisons. In some cases, this can be beneficial. But handing total control over to a private entity with relatively little oversight can spell disaster. In Mississippi, the privately run Walnut Grove Correctional Facility that was such a center of abuse and mismanagement that the state of Mississippi cancelled all contracts with the GEO Group, which ran the prison. One Mississippi judge called the facility a “cesspool”. State officials were left largely in the dark by prison management, and it took a federal investigation and a report filed to the governor to bring the horrific conditions at Walnut Grove to an end.

In reality, the best way to solve prison overpopulation is to put less people in prison. Right now, there are people in federal prison for selling a whale’s tooth on eBay. I can see how such action would warrant a heavy fine, but is such a person really a threat to society? It is a similar story to that of Jesse Snodgrass. Is this young man a menace to the American public because he allowed a friend to talk him into buying a bag of marijuana? And is it a proper use of government money to lock such people up in prison for long sentences where they often become hardened criminals? I doubt it.