Can we reform our prison system?

Some really ugly statistics:

1. The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population.

2. The US prison population has increased 500% in the last 30 years.

3. 4 times as many mentally ill people are in prisons as are in mental health hospitals.

4. On average, 2 out of every 3 released prisoners will be re-arrested and 1 in 2 will return to prison within 3 years of release.

5. Over the past 20 years, inflation-adjusted state spending on corrections rose 127% while higher education expenditures rose just 21%.

6. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980.

7. 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses.

8. Nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity.

9. Black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives.

10. African Americans make up –

– 12 % of the population

– 14% of monthly drug users

– 37% of those arrested on drug charges

– 59% of those convicted on drug charges

– 74% of drug offenders sentenced to prison

That, my friends, is a sorry state of affairs and pretty accurately describes what passes for a so-called criminal justice system in our country. Over the last 30 years, this mess has gotten totally out of control because of our war on drugs, get tough on crime, zero tolerance, three strikes policies – all with a great big dose of racism thrown in to the mix. As Senator Jim Webb says in a current article in Parade Magazine:

With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different–and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.

Senator Web has introduced legislation that would establish a commission to study this problem and make recommendations on how to fix it. You can read the bill and more about all of this at his website – which is where the above statistics came from.

While there are parts of what he wants to do that I’m not thrilled about (he also focused a fair amount of attention on foreign gang activity, which is likely to stir up yet more paranoia about our borders and immigration), I am really hoping that he can engage us in a national dialogue to take an honest look at this mess. We’ve known for years that what we’re doing isn’t working, and in fact, is probably making matters worse. And yet, anyone who tries to do something about it is immediately labelled “soft on crime.” I hope we’re ready as a country to change that narrative.

But there are other forces at work on this issue. I have mentioned before that the Children’s Defense Fund has launched a Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign designed to address the nexus of poverty and race that have been documented to fuel this problem. On their website, they have a wonderful layout of Key Immediate Action Steps that individuals, families, communities, organizations, and the government can take right now to begin to dismantle the pipeline.

Many of you have probably heard about The Sentencing Project and their heroic work on death penalty cases. They also have collected resources and advocated on the issues of sentencing reform, racial disparity, felony disenfranchisement, and the special concerns of women in incarceration.

The Equal Justice Initiative is where I read a report on the fact that we’re the only country in the world that voted against a UN resolution calling for the abolition of sentencing children as young as 13 to life in prison – and that’s because their report documented 73 such cases in the US.  But they also have initiatives on the death penalty, race and poverty, and prison/sentencing reform.

On a local level, the organization I work for has just taken a major step this week to do our part. Partly as a result of what I learned from my interest in the Obama campaign, this week we hired a community organizer. This means that for the first time in our agency’s 35 year history, we will take a step beyond trying to help the individual youth and families affected by all of this and go out into our community to rally support for systemic changes. We have been lucky enough to hire a young African American man for this position who has experience with the system and a tremendous passion personally for the kind of changes that need to happen. Its likely to take at least 6 months or so to really get much underway with this new project. But I imagine that I’ll be wanting to write about our successes and challenges in the future.

So, can we do this? Can we reform our prison system? These are just a few examples of people/organizations that are attempting to do so. The consistency of issues that have been identified as contributors to the problem seem to make a pretty strong case for what needs to be done. Seems to me that the only thing missing is to get folks engaged in making it happen.

Years ago I was a member of a commission looking at these issues in our state. The man who then served as our Commissioner of Corrections said something that seemed to capture the mindset that needs to change in order for us to finally be able to right this wrong. He said: “We need to clarify who we’re mad at and who we’re afraid of.” That was his rather crude way of saying that we should reserve incarceration for the later.


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  1. Glenn Greenwald wrote a great piece on Webb’s courage in taking this step.

    It’s hard to overstate how politically thankless, and risky, is Webb’s pursuit of this issue — both in general and particularly for Webb.  Though there has been some evolution of public opinion on some drug policy issues, there is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison reform.  To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of being “soft on crime” has, for decades, been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer (ask Michael Dukakis).  Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations, and other well-funded weapons for targeting candidates who threaten its interests.

    And as I write this, philipmerrill has a great diary on the recommended list at dkos about it too.

    I hope you’ll take a look at both.

    • Robyn on March 29, 2009 at 17:12

    …is remarkably small.

    spending on corrections

    We stopped doing corrections ages ago.  Incarceration would be a better word.

  2. … reading the diary over at Daily Kos, which has some good action links.

    Good news about what Webb is doing.  And sounds exciting that you’re going to be involved in going into the community to help make these changes … I hope you’ll blog about it here.

    This is the money quote for me … on this issue as well as so many others:

    Seems to me that the only thing missing is to get folks engaged in making it happen.

    I remember back in the 80s, the rhetoric about the sociopathic young people who would kill without a thought, that whole meme, how it promoted the “fear” the Commissioner you quoted was speaking about.  Human beings were portrayed as anything but human and in that context permanent removal from society seemed a no-brainer.

    I think that helped quash any notion that we should invest in any other program but life imprisonment.

    And just like terrorism and “illegal immigrants,” fear is exploited to one aim – dehumanization and removal and then never thinking about these folks again.

    • Edger on March 29, 2009 at 17:19

    and not allowing private corporations to build and operate prisons, in which they’ll do the same things that any good business operation does – minimalize costs (in this case food, living space etc.) and maximize revenue (numbers of prisoners) – would help create a climate in which restorative justice instead of imprisonment for revenge, punishment and profit might have a chance?

  3. This is such an important issue — a very sad one, too!

  4. But I would like to say that i would love to see the soft on crime meme shift from young poor badly educated Americans…

    To the old wise well educated criminals …who know what they are doing….and have choices as to how to behave…

    But NEVER end up doing hard time.

  5. I’ll only add that one excellent way to reform our prisons would be to reform our laws, most particularly our laws against consensual acts, such as drug use and prostitution.  We have finally reached a point where many serious people, although sadly not the President, are talking seriously about marijuana legalization.  That is an excellent start, but it needs our attention if we want to take advantage of this amazing opportunity to end prohibition.

  6. Here in NY it costs about $45,000/year to incarcerate someone in a prison.  It costs about $38,000/year to incarcerate someone in a jail.  This means to me that if you hired a probation officer to check in daily with 5 different people and paid this officer $100,000/year + benefits, we’d be far better off.  Some people only need a weekly or bi-weekly or monthly check in.  The only people who would have to be locked up are those who are too dangerous to be supervised on a daily basis.

    Obviously, building the prison industrial complex in NY is about more than locking city people up in the country.  It’s also about providing the only gainful employment (working in the prison) in many rural counties.  To make that part work, you have to export people of color from urban areas to rural counties.  So to dismantle the prisons you have to also find some other work for the people who presently work in them.

    If NY released all of the non-dangerous drug defendants it’s now holding, it could close many prisons.  The problem is that once they were closed, where would the thousands of employees work?

    Finally, it’s really dangerous to argue the we should have “better prisons.”  Ones that are more rehabilitative, kinder, cleaner, healthier, provide more education, etc.  We should have that for those who have to be in prison.  Those who shouldn’t be locked up need to be located and released.

    Sorry to be so disorganized.  

  7. theres a fresh diary at the OHrahnge now on the rec list but heres the direct link to this story…

    DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked for an emergency hearing today on behalf of an Escanaba woman sentenced to 30 days in jail because she is too poor to reimburse the court for her son’s stay in a juvenile detention facility.

    This whole moral abyss our nation has sunk into just permeates everything. Disgusting.

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