Booker: scrap mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders; end private prisons

JERSEY CITY – In the historic Metropolitan AME Zion Church where Dr. Martin Luther King once spoke as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, Newark Mayor Cory Booker this morning seized on history to commit to criminal justice system reform.

“Many of our laws disproportionately impact poor and minorities,” said Booker, on the 50th Anniversary of King’s “I have a Dream” speech. “African Americans constitute 14 percent of our population in New Jersey but over 60 percent of our inmates are African Americans.”

The Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in an Oct. 16 general election, Booker repeated the stat with urgency.

“We need to have a system which spends as few of our taxpayer dollars… that delivers that safety that we seek,” he said. “America should not be the number one incarceration nation on the globe.”

He wants to get rid of private prisons – a remark that prompted applause led by state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, (D-31), Jersey City.

“I am fundamentally against private prisons,” Booker said. “There is a profit motive to warehousing human beings.”

Booker said he wants to vastly reduce prison entries for nonviolent offenders, including a revamping of existing drug laws. The war on drugs hasn’t been successful, he said.

He wants to scrap mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

In addition, he wants greater investment in drug courts.

“We need to have a national conversation about decriminalizing marijuana,” the mayor said. “We need to have a discussion that brings together everyone.”

The U.S. Senate candidate said there is a need to re-evaluate the application of laws, which unfairly impact minority communities, he said.

“The tough on crime policies of the ’80s and ’90s stripped away prosecutorial power,” Booker said. “It inhibited their ability to bring about just sentences.”

One in every 15 black males is in prison or jail compared to one in 106 white males, he said.

Below are printed Booker’s entire remarks:

Thank you, and thank you for coming out this morning.

In all the righteous talk in Washington about spending cuts, somehow the daily wasting of taxpayer dollars inside our criminal justice system is rarely part of the conversation.

It’s time it was.

It’s a system that’s not cost effective, not making our streets safer and eroding the potential of people who could be contributing to our society, instead of taking from it.

Today, the U.S. spends about $74 billion annually on its prison system – a figure greater than the GDP of 133 countries.

And that doesn’t include the costs of police, who re-arrest people over and over …

… and the costs of courts that re-try people over and over

… or the loss of productivity from hundreds of thousands of people who are behind bars because of non-violent drug offenses.

But there is promise in these problems. Because finding solutions is exactly the kind of work that can build bridges between our parties in Washington.

Here’s why:

If we’re concerned about the size of government, mass incarceration represents an ever-growing expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars, producing dubious results.

If we’re a country worried about America’s economic competitiveness, mass incarceration diverts resources that could be used to repair roads and bridges or hire teachers or invest in manufacturing.

At the same time, it takes human capital with the potential for good – whether that’s paying taxes, creating a business or buying products – and transforms it into yet another expense for our national balance sheet. 

And if we’re focused on making America a global model for justice and a nation that lives up to the ideals of our founding, our criminal justice system represents an impediment to achieving those goals.

That’s one of the reasons we are here today – on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. came here to Metropolitan to support his “Poor People’s Campaign” – an initiative to expand access to “The American Dream,” in more places and to every color and ethnicity.

We have made so much progress toward giving more Americans a shot at that dream. My life – and this candidacy – is testimony to that progress. 

But we cannot ignore the truth: Many of our laws, as currently written, take us farther away from King’s dream and disproportionately impact the poor and racial minorities.

In New Jersey, where African Americans make up 14 percent of the overall population, we represent more than 60 percent of the inmates in the state’s prisons.

There is something deeply, fundamentally wrong with those numbers.

As the mayor of Newark, I have been a participant in a criminal justice system that is continuing to let down our nation. I have watched as my police arrest, re-arrest, and then re-arrest again, only to send the same person for another trip through a revolving door that consumes a gross amount of taxpayer dollars, rarely rehabilitates, makes reoffending more likely and crime more of a reality.

Yes, we’ve driven down crime in Newark, but that progress has been made in the face of a severe and unyielding headwind.

I believe that New Jersey – that all of America – deserves a system that makes communities safer.

A system that spends as few of our precious taxpayer dollars as possible to deliver that safety.

A system that doesn’t squander or inhibit the talents, potential and productivity of so many of our citizens.

And a system that reflects our values, treats every American equally and brings communities and police closer together.

I know we can do better.

Newark, like cities across the country, has successfully innovated with new approaches to public safety. For example, we partnered with groups, including the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, to establish highly effective, pragmatic, common sense programs to reduce the prevalence of re-offending, saving tax dollars and improving public safety.

We were able to work across the aisle because this issue is not a left or right problem. It’s a basic question of continuing to fail, or moving everyone forward.

This does not need to be a political minefield.

There will be those who seek to politicize any mention of reform as being “weak on crime.” They are wrong. And they’re playing politics with the safety of our communities, our tax dollars, and the lives of our citizens.

If New Jersey elects me as their new senator on October 16, here’s what I would fight for to lower the gross expenditure of taxpayer dollars, make communities safer and ensure that our criminal justice system reflects our shared American values.

First, let’s reduce prison entries for non-violent offenders by reforming drug policies, focusing on treatment and rehabilitation – things that drive the outcomes we desire, and not just incarceration for incarceration’s success.

We know that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders comprise more than 50 percent of the federal prison population, and the number of drug offenders in state facilities has increased 13-fold since 1980.

We now spend more than $51 billion annually to fight the War on Drugs, a war that hasn’t been successful and won’t be if we continue on the same course.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder deserve real praise for taking on this fight, but in order to achieve further progress, Congress should increase federal funding for proven, evidence-based programs, like drug courts, that divert low-level drug offenders from prison, save taxpayer dollars and get better results.

Here in New Jersey, sending a person to drug court costs about $13,000 less than sending a person to prison.

In Newark, we established the Newark Community Solutions (NCS) program to bring the first community court to New Jersey. The community court model provides municipal judges with increased sentencing options for nonviolent offenders and has improved public perceptions of justice. Giving judges this added flexibility reduces our prison population and makes our communities safer.

Additionally, it’s time for a real, structured national conversation about decriminalizing marijuana.

Each year more than 700,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession. We need a discussion that brings together everyone – police, prosecutors, public defenders, public health experts, academia, community leaders, and other stakeholders – to consider whether our approach to drug policy is fostering public safety, saving taxpayer dollars and empowering people to succeed.

Second, we must do more to ensure our laws are applied fairly.

African-Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite the fact that their usage rates are no different. Meanwhile, marijuana arrests now make up nearly half of all drug arrests – that’s over 7 million marijuana possession arrests annually between 2001 and 2010.  And the “tough on crime” policy-making climate of the 1980’s and ’90’s took away judicial and prosecutorial discretion, inhibiting just and commensurate sentencing.

Because of reasons like these, imprisonment continues to be concentrated among poor, minority males. Today, one in every 15 black males is in prison or jail, compared to 1 in 106 white males.

To address racial disparities, we should eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses. Research shows that mandatory minimum sentences have virtually no deterrent effect.

They do, however, produce increased costs for taxpayers and actually harm public safety.

To address this problem, at a minimum, Congress should pass the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 and the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013.

These bills would give judges more discretion to sentence federal offenders below the mandatory minimum and would reduce the length of expensive mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

Finally, let’s develop incentives and training so that federal prosecutors are focused on public safety outcomes, costs to taxpayers, and recidivism rates, as opposed to convictions and incarceration rates. 

Now, if we’re asking prosecutors to focus more on outcomes in their jobs, we should do that across the system. We need to update our thinking, and let the data lead the way.

That means doing a better job of approaching justice holistically.

More than 680,000 inmates are released from federal and state prisons every year. Without proper preparation while serving their sentences, they re-offend and return to prison, costing taxpayers millions and millions of dollars.

I’ve seen it happen again and again and again.

We must invest in education and skill building, drug treatment, and facilitation of family communication to ensure that the formerly incarcerated can re-integrate into their families and communities, thus not only saving tax dollars but helping them be more productive members of society.

We know it works.

For example, a study in Washington State found that for every dollar spent on correctional education, the state saved $12; and that a $1 million dollar investment in education prevented 600 crimes, compared to 350 crimes prevented by a $1 million dollar investment in incarceration.

To reduce recidivism and increase employment, the federal government should support programs that allow people in prison to obtain a high school diploma or secondary education degree.

Next, let’s increase funding for proven and effective drug treatment in prisons. Today, only 20 percent of inmates with drug or alcohol addiction receive appropriate treatment.

This shortfall costs taxpayers money: Every dollar spent on proven treatment of substance abuse in the criminal justice system saves as much as four dollars

Finally, let’s end the use of private prisons. Attaching a profit motive to imprisoning people is troubling on its face, but today, the U.S. is becoming increasingly reliant on private, for-profit prisons. And yet studies show that some such private prisons offer worse outcomes at a higher cost to taxpayers.

For existing private prisons, we should also increase oversight and regulations. 

And that brings me to my last point: If we want to keep offenders from returning to jail and reduce all the associated costs to society and taxpayers, smart investments in re-entry can make a difference.

Today, the three-year re-arrest rate for formerly incarcerated people in New Jersey is 55 percent, and the re-incarceration rate is 31 percent. That’s simply too high.

These are the statistics of a system that has fundamentally failed – failed the offender, yes, but also failed the taxpayer, who should be able to count on an outcome better than a return to incarceration.

A good job is the best tool to reduce the likelihood of an offender going back to jail, so let’s take steps to generate opportunities for employment.

Making obvious exceptions for certain crimes and jobs with particular sensitivities, let’s institute “Ban the Box” measures. Public employers should be prohibited from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history prior to the interview stage of a job application. Private employers should be encouraged to do the same.

Fifty cities and eight states, including Newark, have enacted some form of “Ban the Box” measures to give the formerly incarcerated a fair shot to demonstrate their qualifications.

Second, let’s create an evidence-based incentive program that fosters creation of state-led employment programs for the formerly incarcerated. States where recidivism rates fall as a result of these job programs would be eligible for additional grant funding.

To reduce recidivism in Newark, we focused on creating viable employment opportunities. For example, our Office of Reentry has demonstrated success in placing the formerly incarcerated into jobs upon release.

In our reentry programs, 60 percent of enrollees found private, unsubsidized jobs. Of this population, 70 percent retained their jobs for six months or longer, lowering the re-arrest rate in Newark.

Third, let’s focus more on transitional job programsInmates frequently enter prison with few or no job skills or find that their skill set deteriorates while in jail.

Transitional employment allows the formerly incarcerated to gain experience and demonstrate a strong work ethic. In Newark, the Office of Reentry established the Clean and Green program in partnership with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the Newark Conservancy to provide the formerly incarcerated with transitional jobs in landscaping and construction.

Participants hone soft skills such as punctuality and build references for future employment from program managers. The Office of Reentry estimates that 600 Newarkers have been provided transitional jobs since 2009, and believe another 400 to 500 will be served in 2013.

We should fund programs like this one in cities and states across the country, and develop a mechanism to share best practices.

Finally, let’s make it easier for people who are out of jail to stay out of jail. That starts with changing federal rules that prohibit non-violent drug offenders from ever receiving public assistance, public housing, and access to student loans.

More than 200,000 students have lost financial aid eligibility because of non-violent drug convictions, including possession of small amounts of marijuana. That’s unfair on its face and needlessly destructive.

Meanwhile, between 30 percent and 50 percent of persons on parole in urban areas are homeless. Access to housing, legal services, transitional assistance and education can greatly strengthen the likelihood that individuals who are willing to work hard to rehabilitate can live productive, law-abiding lives.

These are just a few ideas to reform a system that today isn’t working. It’s making our communities less safe, wasting taxpayers’ money and failing to reflect our shared American values. 

You can find my full plan at www.corybooker.com.

There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to fix all that’s broken. And ultimately, ending the cycles of incarceration and hopelessness will mean doing more in the earliest stages of the lives of our most vulnerable citizens.

But we can take obvious, common sense, pragmatic steps today that will reduce the size of government, save billions of our tax dollars, strengthen our competitiveness and complete what is ultimately some of the unfinished business that King talked about 50 years ago today – creating more justice and fairness within our creative justice system.

As King said, we must refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

We can do so much better …

To give taxpayers more justice …

To make our communities safer …

And to empower more American citizens to succeed

Thank you. Booker: scrap mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders; end private prisons