Saturday, March 28, 2009

Can we reform our prison system?

Some really ugly statistics:

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

2. 2.38 million Americans are in prison - five times the world's average incarceration rate.

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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