Reforming the Prison System

5 01 2009

Senator Jim Webb will introduce legislation aimed at reforming the prison system during upcoming session of Congress. According to the Washington Post, Webb wants to reform law enforcement’s efforts targeting low-level drug actors instead of more influential players in the drug trade, policies incarcerating ex-convicts for technical parole violations, and laws depriving or curtailing the voting rights of ex-offenders.

The effects of the proliferation of failed criminal justice policies and enforcement strategies have been well documented. Despite having only five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has a quarter of the world’s prison population. The 2.3 million behind bars are not only disproportionately black and Latino, but also amounts to one percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the Pew Center on the States.

In 2004, Latinos and African Americans  inmates made up 19.4  and 43.4 percent of those population state penitentiaries, respectively. Yet the 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Latinos and African American only 14.8 and 12.8 percent of the U.S. population.

Approximately, one in 106 white men aged 18 or older are in prison, compared to one in 36 Hispanic men and one in 15 for black men in the same age group. More strikingly, one in 9 black men between 20 and 34 are in prison, according to Pew.

us-and-west-european-incarceration-2001

(Source: Hamilton Project)

For some, Webb seems an unlikely figure champion of progressive criminal justice, since his biography has all the makings of a law and order conservative. But the one time Republican and highly decorated Marine captain, Vietnam war veteran and former Reagan Naval Secretary, had what he described as an “eye opening” experience as a journalist reporting on how the Japanese prison were run.

In a speech at the National Press Club, Senator Webb said he was struck by how Japan in the early 1980’s managed to have only 40,000 people in prison in a society with more than 100 million. By contrast, the U.S. incarcerated about 780,000 people in a society of more than 200 million at that time, according to Webb in his speech.

He was also impressed with how the Japanese, unlike the their U.S. counterparts, separated offenders in prison by the type of offense they committed instead of lumping together violent felons with non-violent ones. And he also took notice of the overall focus on the readmission of inmates in the greater society with marketable skills. In other words, the Japanese authorities actually invested in rehabilitating people in their correctional facilities.

As a freshman Senator, Webb joined a growing number of policy experts and lawmakers advocating for alternatives to incarceration. Webb co-sponsored the Second Chance Act in the U.S. Senate, which Illinois Congressman Danny Davis helped conceive, and signed into law by President Bush in April 2008. The measure provides more than $360 million in federal funding to help ex-0ffenders reintegrate into society by providing substance abuse treatment for those who need it, assistance in obtaining identification cards, which is critical to landing a job, job training, and financial incentives for employers willing to hire ex-felons.

The goal of the bill was to reduce the recidivism rate, which has skyrocketed in recent years along with state spending supporting incarceration policies. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Annual criminal-justice expenditures for police, prisons, probation and courts have risen to more than $200 billion from $36 billion in 1982.”

Meanwhile, state correctional spending is gradually edging out other priorities such as higher education, as evidenced by the graph below. States such as Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan and Oregon spend just as much on corrections as they do on higher education.

state-spending-on-corrections-and-higher-ed

But in addition to reentry programs lawmakers should reconsider the variety of policies supporting the failed war on drugs too. For starters, Congress should direct its attention to correcting the disparities in sentencing guidelines for crack and power cocaine. Despite the fact that we now know that they pharmacologically induce the same effects, 5 grams of crack – less than two sugar cubes, carries a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. The same penalty applies to those with power cocaine if they are caught with 500 grams. That’s a 100 to 1 disparity. Interestingly enough, about 75 percent of crack cocaine defendants are only low level offenders, not the major king pings and traffickers that are truly profiting from the drug trade.

During the last 25 years or so, drug arrests have tripled, thereby creating a 1100% increase in drug offenders in prisons and jails since 1980. The U.S. went from imprisoning 41,100 in 1980 to nearly half a million on drug charges alone according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group.

The same organization also found that while African Americans constitute 14 percent of regular drug users and yet they are still 37 percent of arrested for a drug offense in state prison.

On the change.gov website, Obama’s agenda includes not only eliminating the crack-cocaine disparity, but also the expansion of drug courts, since they are more effective at reducing recidivism, drug use and other forms of criminal activity.

States and the federal government should also reconsider jailing and imprisoning ex-convicts for mere technical violations of their parole, since they are nonviolent offenses. It needlessly enlarges the prison population and impedes the reintegration of people who deemed threats to public safety simply because he missed an appointment, failed a drug test, or lost a job. Such routine violations indicate a greater need for counseling and other forms of intervention rather than incarceration.

Lastly, felons should be allowed to vote after completing their sentence and parole.  Felon disenfranchisement laws date back to the Jim Crow era and were engineered to suppress minority voting. Today, the ACLU estimates about 5.3 million people are affected by laws barring those with criminal records from voting.

Webb seems to understand the importance of it all when he said, “If you have paid the price that your community, through its government, has decided you should pay for the crime that you have done, then you should be made whole. I don’t think that’s a difficult concept.”

Hopefully, the new administration and new Congress will move forward with these reforms while they have they still have the political momentum on their back rather fear the next campaign attack ad calling them soft on crime because they were smart on policy.

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