A More Sustainable Future for Prisons

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A More Sustainable Future for Prisons

Post  Yoke on Wed May 13, 2009 11:29 am

Somin Lee/Staff Last week Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) introduced legislation to create a panel of experts to review the state of criminal justice in America. It should come as no surprise that such a panel is sorely needed; for the first time, one in 100 American adults is in jail or prison. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, a shocking one in nine young adult black men is incarcerated at any given time.

No state illustrates the drastic and debilitating effects of this “incarceration epidemic” better than California.

Just last week, a federal court restarted the contempt-of-court proceedings against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for refusing to fund the first chunk of a billion-dollar plan to improve health conditions in his state’s prisons. The situation seems at an impasse — either the state, with an already staggering $8 billion projected budget deficit, builds 5,000 new prison beds, or it will be compelled to release up to 58,000 inmates.

And so Webb’s legislation comes not at the crucial moment, but long after the epidemic began. Even so, it has the potential to guide our correctional policies towards a more sane, humane and economically sustainable future, away from the lock’-em-up, throw-away-the-key mentality of the recent past.

Here are three recommendations the panel should make, targeted at the courts, the laws and the streets:

1) Increase the number and scope of alternative-to-incarceration programs, including drug courts and mental health courts.

Up to 16 percent of jail inmates have serious mental health problems, and these individuals are more likely to be arrested for their crimes and serve longer sentences than their unimpaired counterparts. Moreover, both drug courts and mental health courts have been found, by impartial arbiters including the General Accounting Office, to reduce recidivism when properly implemented. Because shorter sentences and reduced recidivism lower costs, we have a long way to go before we reach the point of diminishing returns.

If we’re really serious about rehabilitation, and not just punishment, then these smart, targeted courts are no-brainers.

2) Reform our drug laws.

Unfortunately, President Obama recently laughed off questions regarding marijuana legalization, as if only college lit majors and beach-bum hippies were proponents of such a policy. There are more than a few good reasons to bring illicit substances into a legal — and regulated — market.

In 2007, more than 870,000 individuals were arrested on charges related to marijuana in the U.S. In the same year, the state of Michigan alone spent more than $38 million incarcerating those individuals. As a former student of the University of Michigan and participant in Hash Bash (the tacitly sanctioned pot extravaganza), I can tell you that it isn’t the predominately white students getting locked up. Studies have shown that, although blacks are no more likely to use marijuana, they are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges.

By pushing recreational drugs onto the black market, we’ve lost the ability to regulate and tax them. This makes them more dangerous, funds a network of drug-providing criminals (instead of providing funds to local and state governments) and disproportionately harms the poorest among us.

Here’s a case where our puritanical instincts do more than just inconvenience — they entrench inequality. We deserve more from Obama than a dismissive chuckle, when so many lives are put on hold by antiquated prohibitionism.

3) Increase the number of police officers on the street.

More than just a bipartisan gesture, increasing the size of police forces around the country would reduce crime while increasing jobs. Obama has preempted them on this count — the stimulus package allocates $1 billion to hire up to 100,000 new local police officers over the next eight years.

A very good start, but only a start. In a future where we’ll need more and more career tracks that don’t require four-year college degrees, police departments can offer a way out of poverty for hundreds of thousands of low-income teens, while making cities safer and crime less appealing. This is a win-win across the board. And yes, it also has bipartisan appeal.

Those are just three of a multitude of potential solutions to our broken criminal justice system. Their most salient feature is that they’re not proposed in isolation — this is a problem with social determinants that demands interventions at multiple levels.

It’s reassuring that Webb — with the backing of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) — has taken on this issue. As a decorated combat veteran and former secretary of the navy, the inevitable charges of being “soft on crime” should bounce off of his Silver Star. Hopefully his panel will be able to operate and maneuver with similar freedom.

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