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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
is it possible for nearly 2.4 million people to be in prison, even though the
crime rate has actually dropped
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.
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.
children and youth are our future, we need to find ways to set them free.
Labels: baby boomers, crime rates, criminal justice reform, drug counselors policies, John Boehner, millennials, Obama, prisons, psychologists, sentencing laws, slavery, youthful offenders