Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders propose to reduce by 50 percent the number of people incarcerated in the United States at both the federal and state level. This would be quite the lift. If by “incarcerated” they mean every prison (as opposed to jail) inmate, they would have to persuade the states (responsible for 88 percent of 1.5 million prisoners) to reduce the sentences for some very serious crimes, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, and maybe even sharply curtail the use of recidivism as a sentencing criterion.
Since over half of all state prisoners are in for murder, rape, robbery or assault, and another 14 percent were sentenced for burglary, major theft or fraud, public enthusiasm for leniency would be limited. The public will be even less enthusiastic when they come to understand that three out of four prison inmates are repeat offenders. Of course, there’s always the old left-wing standby of eliminating imprisonment for drug offenses, but drug possession accounts for only 3.5 percent of state prison populations. We’d have to free drug traffickers to downsize imprisonment a meaningful 11 percent.
If Buttigieg and Sanders were to include the jail population in their 50 percent solution (about 745,000 nationwide at any given point in time, but with very rapid and high turnover), they would have to find a way to reduce the number of arrests, perhaps by shrinking the size of police forces or curtailing arrests for quality-of-life offenses, such as aggressive panhandling or defacing public property. The most tempting option is bail reform by compelling local judges to release more defendants.
Bail reform is often billed as the antidote to discrimination against the poor, and Warren, Biden, and Sanders favor ending cash bail.
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