The United States, the world’s leading manufacturer of prisoners, has an incarceration problem. 

A rapid rise in incarceration rates has crippled the U.S. over the past three decades. During these years, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons has risen 500 percent. As a result, the U.S. pays $80 billion annually in incarceration costs. $80 billion. That’s money that could go toward keeping Social Security solvent, supporting climate change research or rebuilding infrastructure. But in the U.S., we spend it on putting citizens behind bars.

American imprisonment habits are not normal, by the way. The U.S. has a prison population of nearly 2.2 million people, compared with China’s 1.5 million (despite the fact that, in 2011, China’s population was four times as large) and Great Britain’s mere 80,000. Are Americans just more dangerous? What’s going on?

In truth, there isn’t a problem with Americans. There is, however, a problem with American laws. Federal mandatory minimum-sentence laws cause the economic and cultural disaster known as mass incarceration. Current law dictates that judges must hand down minimum sentences for a variety of crimes, ranging from immigration offenses to illegal food stamp activity to bank robbery. Mandatory minimums are fiscally and socially destructive; they create one-size-fits-all sentences that lengthen jail time for undeserving criminals and cost taxpayers money.

The incarceration process is unfair and we can’t afford it anymore. The fix is simple: stop locking so many people up.

To do this, we need a safety valve — exceptions to minimums that provide ways in which judges can avoid handing down harsh punishments that too often have unjust, unintended results. For example, statutory laws might force a judge to sentence someone to 10 years in prison for selling pot. If, however, the judge sees the person he’s sentencing has no criminal history and no history of violence, he can adjust the verdict to something less life-altering by way of the safety valve.

Safety valves can be incredibly powerful in fighting the mass incarceration crisis; this is why U.S. law already dictates one. The current safety valve is described in § 3553(f) of Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Under the provision, federal judges are to hand down sentences “without regard to any statutory minimum sentence” when five requirements are met. Good news, right?

There’s an issue: The aforementioned safety valve applies only to first-time, nonviolent drug offenders in cases not involving guns. This is a ridiculously narrow offering. Since the provision applies only to first-time offenders, even the most minor misconduct has disqualifying power. So, too, does possession of a gun, even one that is registered.

The safety valve must expand across the board for all federal crimes. The existing one-size-fits-all system of judicial sentencing leads to too many unwarranted punishments, which, in turn, have drastic negative effects on the economy. More money is spent keeping prisons running, while fewer able-bodied Americans can supply the workforce.

The country’s social atmosphere also takes a hit, as high incarceration rates break up families and induce this crushing statistic: In 2010, 1 in 28 American children had a parent behind bars. Having a parent in jail can be detrimental to a child’s well-being. A report from the Urban Institute found these kids are more likely to experience chronic sleeplessness, difficulties concentrating and restlessness. They also are more likely to have problems with depression, anxiety or aggression.

Put it all together and we’re left with a vicious cycle that not only damages the U.S. economy, but also leaves kids parentless and, often, emotionally scarred.   

The Justice Safety Valve Act proposes a broad policy that applies to all federal crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. The bill requires nothing of federal judges, since they would still be able to sentence at or beyond the mandatory minimum. The plan would simply give judges more flexibility.

It’s safe to assume that U.S. incarceration rates would shrink if this bill is passed. Taxpayer money could flow back toward rebuilding highways and revamping our education system, and parents would spend less time behind bars and more time watching their children grow up.

Unfortunately, the Justice Safety Valve Act was introduced last May in the Senate and hasn’t been touched since. Lawmakers don’t seem to realize the positive economic and cultural effects that would come out of its passage.

In essence, it’s a common-sense idea: Judges should have a high degree of flexibility when making their decisions. Of course, the far-reaching issue of mass incarceration won’t be solved with the passage of one law. But attacking the problem will take time and effort. Why not start with a piece of legislation that saves taxpayers money and gives our federal judges a little more flexibility?

Billy Stampfl can be reached at bstampfl@umich.edu. 

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