Stephen Ross Johnson provides expert analysis for USA Today on criminal law and mass incarceration
Stephen Ross Johnson
In a July 3, 2020 article, Stephen Ross Johnson was interviewed for USA Today’s Fact Check series:
“Stephen Ross Johnson, of Knoxville, Tennessee, a board member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and past president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told USA TODAY that it is ‘over simplistic’ to say the 1994 crime bill led to mass incarceration. Asked if the bill caused or largely contributed to it, Johnson says: ‘The bottom line answer to that is no. Was it a link in the chain? Yes. Is it the beginning of the chain? No.’
Johnson argues that the roots of mass incarceration can be found in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with legislation that created, among other things, the RICO statute, which broadened the scope of federal law as the war on drugs began to take shape.
The veteran criminal defense attorney, who founded the Tennessee Innocence Project, contends that mass incarceration also got a boost from a series of bills in the 1980s that created presumptive detention for federal arrestees.
That, he says, essentially made bail nonexistent in the federal judicial system. That 1980s legislation also created mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses in the federal system and federal sentencing guidelines designed to promote uniformity but at the cost of higher penalty ranges.
‘People that are poor and of color ended up (under sentencing guidelines) with much higher sentences,’ Johnson says.”