Bryan Stevenson Testifies Before Congress on Need for Sentencing Reform


EJI Director Bryan Stevenson testified today before the House Judiciary Committee’s Over-Criminalization Task Force and urged policymakers to eliminate or restrict mandatory minimum sentences, restore sentencing discretion to judges, and reconsider harsh punishments, including the death penalty.

At today’s Hearing on Penalties, Stevenson told the task force that the incarceration rate in the United States has more than quadrupled in the last four decades, growing from 200,000 in 1973 to 2.2 million Americans in prison today.

Driven by “tough on crime” policies including increased penalties for nonviolent drug offenses and mandatory minimum sentencing, the massive increase in our prison population has had sweeping collateral consequences. Spending on incarceration has risen from six billion dollars in 1980 to about 80 billion today. About 2.7 million American children have at least one parent behind bars, putting them at increased risk of homelessness, behavior problems, and arrest.

Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts communities of color. Overall, one out of every three African American men can expect to go to prison during their lifetime, in contrast with 1 out of 17 white men. And multiple barriers exist to prevent the formerly incarcerated from finding employment and housing when they are released; many states deny them driver’s licenses, eligibility for food stamps, public housing, and student loans, and nearly one in 40 American adults (one in 13 African Americans) are forbidden to vote due to a felony conviction.

Stevenson urged the task force to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, which decades of studies have exposed as a failed policy that does not deter crime and results in starkly disproportionate and inconsistent sentences. There is widespread bipartisan support for eliminating or curtailing mandatory minimum sentences.

Stevenson also testified about the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on vulnerable groups – individuals with mental illness, children, women, and veterans – and recommended that discretion be restored to sentencing judges to take into account disabilities and life circumstances in deciding appropriate sentences.

The federal death penalty’s expansion in the 1990’s has contributed to racial disparity and arbitrariness. Federal prosecutors have increasingly pursued federal prosecutions in low level drug deals and robbery-murders traditionally prosecuted by state authorities, and racial bias persists: 65 percent of the 57 people under a federal death sentence are African American, Latino, Native American, or Asian. Since 2009, 92 percent of the men sentenced to die have been people of color.

“The financial and societal costs of overcriminalization, overincarceration and wasted federal spending on unnecessarily long prison sentences can and should be addressed,” Stevenson concluded.