Today, there are an estimated 100,000 Americans in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Ten thousand of them are federal inmates. A fraction of those federal prisoners will benefit from President Barack Obama’s recent executive order to remove the most vulnerable from solitary confinement.
The president’s directive is an important step but just a start, in reforming a U.S. criminal justice system that imprisons 2.2 million people. Although the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent of its inmates at a cost to taxpayers of some $80 billion annually.
Obama’s order will remove juveniles and the mentally ill from solitary confinement. Thus, rather than being deprived of almost all human interaction “for their own protection,” minor and mentally ill prisoners will be assigned to special units, where they should not be threatened. And prisoners with mental illnesses will have access to expanded treatment.
The policy change comes at a time when there is bipartisan interest in revisiting the harsh laws passed in the three-strikes-you’re-out days of the 1990s crime scare, which resulted in lengthy prison terms for nonviolent (but third strike) lawbreakers, a disproportionate number of whom are African-Americans.
As a small way of rectifying that overreach, the president pardoned 46 prisoners last October. In announcing those pardons, he said: “These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years; 14 of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses.” And he noted that if “they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have served their time.”
At the time, the pardons were welcome, but they were largely symbolic. Real reform is the job of Congress. Members of the House and the Senate have introduced bills, but neither chamber has brought the legislation up for a vote. This could be a year for genuine progress in this area, if legislators on Capitol Hill decide to make it so.
Obama expressed hope that his orders will be the model for states and municipalities, where the majority of inmates in solitary confinement are held. Under this approach, the goal is justice, not perpetual or unnecessary punishment. With this standard in mind, we urge the Maryland state Senate to overturn Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a voting rights bill for released felons, who have served their time and seek a more complete reintegration into society. The House of Delegates has already voted to override the veto. Similar Senate action would return a measure of justice to the system.