Erica Zunkel: Trump's U.S. Sentencing Commission Nominee is Far Outside Mainstream

Commentary: We’ve Made Progress With Criminal Justice Reform. This Trump Pick Could Undo It All

Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominees to be Secretary of State and the Director of the CIA, respectively, will garner much attention in the Senate in the coming weeks, and for good reason. But it’s President Trump’s little-known nominee to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, William Otis, who also should be making headlines. The Senate should reject Otis’ nomination because his views on criminal justice and sentencing are far out of the mainstream and are driven by hyperbole and fear, rather than evidence and data.

Otis, who would wield unchecked power over an important federal agency, is precisely the wrong person for this moment, just at the time there is reason for optimism. Widespread consensus, from the Koch Brothers and Newt Gingrich to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and the Black Lives Matter movement, has recently emerged that we must change course on our country’s addiction to incarceration. The prison population in the United States has more than quadrupled since 1980, with 2.4 million Americans currently behind bars. We have less than 5% of the world’s population, but over 22% of the world’s prisoners. One in every 28 children in our country now has a parent in jail or prison. We imprison blacks at a rate six times of that of South Africa during apartheid.

Progress is being made at the state level, demonstrating that we can both lower incarceration rates and reduce crime. Texas, which has focused on treating addiction as a public health problem by diverting drug offenders from prison and into rehabilitation, saw a 10% reduction to its incarceration rate over a recent five-year period. That reduction in incarceration did not lead to an increase in crime; rather, Texas’s crime rate plunged by 18%. Similarly, Georgia has instituted large-scale criminal justice reforms, including eliminating certain mandatory minimum drug statutes and returning sentencing discretion to judges, who can most appropriately weigh a person’s culpability. These changes both reduced levels of incarceration and saw a corresponding 17% reduction in crime.

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