Oddly, the subject of prison reform is the least sexy, least interesting subject in the public mind. Nevertheless, it should be captured in the public consciousness. It is not an easy subject because it goes beyond treatment of prisoners and requires an in depth look at criminal justice legislation in every state and the Federal system, itself.
Thirty-five years ago with the announcement that we were going to have a “War on Drugs” the simplistic attitude of arrest them, lock them up and throw away the key became the norm. Every state legislator as well as Congressman sought and gained re-election on “tough on crime” rhetoric and that rhetoric produced masses of draconian laws that were not limited to illegal drugs but to property crimes, white collar crimes and simply crimes of intent.
Today, in a recession where thousands of people have lost their jobs and state and federal governments have racked up record deficits, little thought is given to the social and financial costs not only since the announcement of a “War on Drugs” in the early ‘80s but also to a criminal justice system that is broken and ineffective.
The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners! Either we are the most evil people on earth or we’re doing something wrong. We incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents – nearly five times the world average. Approximately one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail or on supervised release. Local, state and federal spending on corrections amounts to about $70 billion per year and has increased 40 percent over the last 20 years. This doesn’t even include the “War on Drugs” industry that we have built up over the last 35 years now estimated to cost in the neighborhood of 475 billion a year, but no one really knows the exact cost. Nor do these figures include the cost of court, criminal litigation, prosecutors, defense attorneys and support staffs.
Also in the early ‘80s, the federal government cancelled funding for mentally ill treatment and housing. Supposedly, this was going to save the taxpayer money. In actuality, it has cost much, much more. We simply shifted the mentally ill to the prison systems. Warehousing the nation’s mentally ill and drug addicts in crowded correctional facilities tends mostly to create a mass of meaner, more violent, less employable people at the exit. The Justice Department estimates that 16 percent of the adult inmates in American prisons – more than 350,000 of those incarcerated – suffer from mental illness; the percentage in juvenile custody is even higher.
Justice statistics for 2007 showed that nearly 60 percent of the state prisoners serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence, and four out of five drug arrests were for drug possession, not sales.
Simplistic platitudes such as “War on Drugs”, “tough on crime”, just “lock um up” always sound good to our busy ears. Reality is never that simple. Take for example the typical stereotype that black people use more drugs. The reality is that drug use varies little by ethnic group. African-Americans are estimated at 14 percent of regular drug users but make up 56 percent of those in state prisons for drug crimes.
I live in one of the country’s most rabid “lock ‘em up” states, not to mention a leader in capital punishment deaths. A former District Judge, who is now a State Representative once told me “I’m proud of it.” For me, I would love to see public opinion finally shift away from fear-based appeals to personal safety and become a little more realistic and analytical. I don’t see it happening, at least not in my lifetime, not where I live.
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