Did you know that America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any Western nation, with 750 humans in jail per 100,000 people? If that statistic isn’t horrifying enough, consider the fact that over 50% of inmates are in federal prison for drug crimes (many of which are relatively minor). Regardless of whether you’re a baby boomer, a millennial, or from an in-between generation, I bet there are LOADS of Americans who experimented with drugs. How many people can honestly say they DIDN’T smoke pot as a teenager? I’m guessing there are also a significant number who snorted cocaine, swallowed speed to study or finish a paper, or popped a Quaalude at some time in their lives. Most of us were lucky enough to avoid prison and grew up to be law-abiding, tax paying adults who contribute to society in myriad ways. But what about all of the unlucky people who committed similar minor offenses and ended up in prison for up to 20 years simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, belonged to a racial minority, or lacked the funds to hire a good attorney? Many of these drug offenders are teenagers and young adults who have NOT enjoyed the benefits of a nurturing family nest, and have instead suffered inside over-crowded prison cells with two or three inmates bunking together in claustrophobically small spaces, such as solitary confinement. Oh, you thought solitary confinement was solitary? Not necessarily, with jail crowding there can be as many as three prisoners sharing the same solitary confinement cell.
With these scary statistics in mind—and with a push from President Obama—it seems that conservative and liberal politicians are finally coming together to reverse the sentencing laws of the 1970s and ‘80s. (See “Bi-Partisan Push Builds to Relax Sentencing Laws,” The New York Times, 7/29/15). Currently under debate by Congress is whether to dramatically change sentences—including a reduction of mandatory minimum sentences—or seek early release and services behind bars, or some combination of these changes. Even conservative Republican John Boehner has endorsed a bill that would change the criminal justice system. “I’ve long believed there needed to be reform,” Mr. Boehner stated. “We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, that don’t really in my view need to be there. It’s expensive to house. Some of these people are in there for what I’ll call flimsy reasons.” Amen!
The cost of incarcerating one inmate in states like Connecticut, Washington and New York is anywhere from $50,000 – $60,000, according a report by the organization, “The Price of Prisons.” That $60,000 could pay the salary of a teacher or firefighter, or maybe provide well-deserved raises to the best and most qualified of these civil servants. Instead our epidemic of incarceration costs taxpayers $63.4 billion a year.
Leaving housing costs aside for the moment, what about the human costs? According to a study of Chicago youth incarceration by Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph Doyle of MIT, young people who went to prison were 39% less likely to finish high school than others from the same neighborhood who were not incarcerated. Even young offenders from the same neighborhood who were spared from prison were more likely to finish high school than jailed peers. While prison is supposed to deter crime, the Chicago study found that going to jail also made kids more likely to offend again. Incarcerated youth were 67% more likely to return to prison by age 25 than peers who had not gone to prison. Was the pattern similar for those involved in more serious crimes? Aizer and Doyle found that youths who’d spent time in prison were more likely to commit “homicide, violent crime, property crime and drug crimes” than those who didn’t serve time.
Alarmingly, adolescents are frequently sent into the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses, in a phenomenon known as the “school-to-prison-pipeline.” The process begins when students are forced out of school, suspended for bad behavior and sent back to their home environments and neighborhoods which may be filled with negative influences. Forced out of school (some unnecessarily), these students become stigmatized and fall behind in schoolwork, making them more likely to drop out permanently and commit crimes in their communities.
But how is it possible for nearly 2.4 million people to be in prison, even though the crime rate has actually dropped by more than 40% over the last 20 years? Why are there so many prisoners? Apparently, our country has devised a new form of slavery. According to California Prison Focus, the private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences in order to expand their workforce. “The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.” (!!!) America needs to wake up and end this prison nightmare.
What’s the solution to the current criminal justice crisis? Instead of building more prisons, or adding more beds to existing jails, we should be investing in prevention and rehabilitation—especially for youthful offenders. Why not add more school psychologists and drug counselors to our schools and try to address the issues that lead to early crimes? Schools in troubled neighborhoods should invite successful alumnae to address students in assembly, provide role models, and possible mentors. Surely, most Americans would agree that investing in human potential is far more profitable, both financially and emotionally, than locking people away.
Obama’s effort to seek changes in tough drug policies, allowing the early release of low-level, non-violent offenders is a good first step. If lawmakers can agree to cut in half the mandatory prison sentences for certain drug crimes—now set at 5, 10 and 20 years—imagine the number of lives that could be improved. Young offenders would have a chance at an education. Incarcerated parents could go home to raise their children—the innocent and invisible victims of the current justice system. Whenever possible, children should be living with their parents at home, not visiting them in prison.
If children and youth are our future, we need to find ways to set them free.