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Thursday, February 28, 2008

 
Our Prison Problem

by dday

This story in the New York Times today just broke my heart.

For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report.

Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.

Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.


If you add in those on parole or probation, you're probably up to 1 in 50 Americans involved in the prison system.

The full Pew report is here (PDF), and it's really an eye-opener. I cover prison policy issues fairly extensively at Calitics, as the Golden State has one of the worst, if not the worst, prison system in the entire country. Most people are familiar with the heinous "three-strikes" sentencing law passed by voters in 1994 (one of the great victories of ALEC, the conservative movement's legislative arm that is designed to push these kinds of policies through the states), but that was just the most extreme example of a thirty-year trend toward increasing sentencing laws; in fact, in those thirty years the state legislature passed over 1,000 laws increasing sentencing for all manner of crimes, and not ONE reducing sentencing. As a result, state prisons are woefully overcrowded, the nonviolent offenders who enter them don't get treatment or job placement or rehabilitation but essentially a college-level program in how to commit violent crime, and this facilitates the nation's worst recidivism rate. So incarcerating more and more citizens does not make anyone safer; in fact, it has the opposite effect.

This is not a problem isolated to California, as the Pew report shows. It is, however, driven by the same factors.

In exploring such alternatives, lawmakers are learning that current prison growth is not driven primarily by a parallel increase in crime, or a corresponding surge in the population at large. Rather, it flows principally from a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and, through popular “three-strikes” measures and other sentencing enhancements, keeping them there longer. Overlaying that picture in some states has been the habitual use of prison stays to punish those who break rules governing their probation or parole. In California, for example, such violators make up a large proportion of prison admissions, churning in and out of badly overloaded facilities. Nationally, more than half of released offenders are back in prison within three years, either for a new crime or for violating the terms of their release.


Nothing makes a local legislator smile more than being able to go back to his home district and tell them that he or she just passed a bill to protect their children. It's a bipartisan problem, this disease of having to be seen as "Tough on Crime." But the electoral benefits are just a segment of this. The real issue is the rise of the prison-industrial complex, which at the state level is approaching the power of the military-industrial complex at the national level. For many towns in America, building a prison is tantamount to building a factory in the 1950s. Without a solid manufacturing base, having a stable industry that can create jobs, both inside the prison and in the ancillary businesses catering to it (food and lodging for visitors and support services for families, for example), is very compelling. PBS did an episode of P.O.V. on this phenomenon of "prison towns" last year. This provides a boost to local economies, but at a cost.

Stories like these are increasingly common in rural America where, during the 1990s, a prison opened every 15 days. The United States now has the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people per capita than any other country in the world. Yet this astonishing jailing of America has been little noted because many of the prisons have opened in remote areas like Susanville. "Prison Town, USA" examines one of the country's biggest prison towns, a place where a new correctional economy encompasses not only prisoners, guards and their families, but the whole community.

Nestled in the picturesque foothills of the California Sierras, Susanville once thrived on logging, ranching and agriculture. Even today, the town offers a postcard image of small-town America under majestic peaks — if you keep the prisons out of the frame. Susanville, along with much of rural America, has seen its local agricultural economy go the way of the family farm. And like other communities that don't want to become ghost towns, Susanville decided to take a chance on the only industry that came calling — California's burgeoning prison system, hungry for space, new guards and low visibility.


And when sentencing laws eventually produce an overwhelming fiscal burden on the state (the cost of housing prisoners has jumped from $10 billion in 1987 to $44 billion last year), there aren't many choices: cut education or health care or social services to compensate, or contract the job out to private for-profit industry to reduce the expense. Of course, then those industries become reliant on "new customers" for their bottom line, and legislators are again pressured into increasing sentences, and the death spiral continues. There is a direct line between the campaign donations of the private prison industry and the states with the strictest sentencing laws.

The prison privatization trend is finally on the wane, as lawmakers begin to understand that government actually can be more efficient if the remove the interest of filling the jails from the equation. (Although, just last year Governor Schwarzenegger produced a video attempting to entice inmates into moving into private facilities to help reduce overcrowding. It was eventually ruled unconstitutional.)

There are actually other ways to look at this issue, and the latest trend is starting in Red America.

Kansas and Texas are well on their way. Facing daunting projections of prison population growth, they have embraced a strategy that blends incentives for reduced recidivism with greater use of community supervision for lower-risk offenders. In addition, the two states increasingly are imposing sanctions other than prison for parole and probation violators whose infractions are considered “technical,” such as missing a counseling session. The new approach, born of bipartisan leadership, is allowing the two states to ensure they have enough prison beds for violent offenders while helping less dangerous lawbreakers become productive, taxpaying citizens.


This, incidentally, is one area in which Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, has been so effective. Getting the Kansas legislature to move in this direction must have been a monumental task.

We desperately need a more progressive prison policy that recognizes the actual intention of imprisonment, to rehabilitate and return the jailed back to society with opportunities for advancement. Locking the problem offenders away for longer and longer hasn't worked. Sentencing that focuses on treatment, and which pairs tougher sentences to actual risk, is far preferable. Chris Bowers calls this one of the untouchable symptoms that lawmakers have to this point been loath to challenge. But the cost has become too high to ignore. I think it's an area where a more transformational politics would be a godsend.


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