A shameless plug: My book, "Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison," was published this week. I've been excited about this book because it has what I consider to be some funny stories about cynically manipulating some of the bums and monsters I encountered while I was incarcerated for blowing the whistle on the CIA's torture programs. The book has done well so far and is going into a second printing already, but not for the reasons I thought.
Besides the stories that I was so proud of, the book is actually a serious political-science-type look at the justice system, the federal prisons, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the problems with a system that is inherently racist and xenophobic and that treats mental illness as a disciplinary problem.
The United States has roughly five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prison population. That means that about 0.9 percent of all Americans are in prison. Doesn't sound like a lot, right? Well, it's more, per capita, than Russia, China, and even Iran. And to put a finer point on things, one out of every four African-American men is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. That is utterly unacceptable in a civilized society.
Much of this is the result of mandatory minimum sentencing, an ignominious byproduct of the so-called "war on drugs." If one judge gives somebody six months in prison and another judge gives somebody else ten years for committing the same crime, there's no "justice." The problem is that the mandatory minimum became something closer to the ten years than to the six months. The prisons filled, families and communities were devastated, and companies that were part of the "prison-industrial complex" enriched themselves.
At the very end of the Obama administration, Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch circulated a memo among US attorneys authorizing them to withhold charging suspects with multiple counts, called charge-stacking, for the same crime and urging Congress to act to do away with many mandatory minimums for drug crimes. This was a policy change, not a legal one, as there was no accompanying Congressional action, and President Donald Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, last week changed the policy, calling for all US attorneys to re-impose charge stacking, ordering US attorneys to charge suspects with the most severe crimes possible, and to urge Congress to pass even tougher mandatory minimums. So much for "prosecutorial discretion." Now prosecutors won't have any discretion at all. Expect federal prisons to burst at the seams.
The deeper issue here is that mandatory minimums just simply don't work. We know this as a fact from psychologists, criminologists, prosecutors, and judges. It does absolutely nothing to reduce recidivism, it wrecks families, it causes lasting harm in poor communities, and it costs the taxpayers a fortune.
I tend to sound like a broken record when I say that Americans must demand of their elected officials that they move beyond mandatory minimums, reform the criminal justice system, and, for that matter, legalize marijuana at the federal level. None of that is going to happen with Trump in the White House, Sessions at Justice, and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.
But maybe Trump's current political problems will bottle up his agenda in Congress. That may be our only hope until the 2018 elections. Perhaps then some sanity will return to Washington, even if it's just in the House of Representatives.