Why We Need Sentencing Reform

We are dedicated to the cause of sentencing reform.  America’s correctional system is deeply flawed.  The damage wrought by current policies of mass incarceration damage us economically and socially.

Mass incarceration and current criminal justice policy costs billions of taxpayer dollars annually, rips apart families & incarcerates non-violent addicts.  

We need criminal justice and sentencing reform that focuses on rehabilitation of non-violent offenders and programs that will reduce future recidivism.  it’s not just for the inmates…it’s for all of us.

Desmond Tutu said,

“My humanity is bound up in yours, we can only be human together”

We, as a nation, cannot continue to dehumanize people as we currently are in our age of mass incarceration without losing our own humanity.  We need to see inmates as people- people with families, friends, pasts AND futures.

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“How many people are in jail based on faked data?!”

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This recent Massachusetts crime lab scandal underscores how easy it is for Americans- especially poor Americans- to be incarcerated wrongly.  A chemist at a Massachusetts crime lab tampered with and falsified tens of thousands of drug samples used as evidence, forging signatures and even mixing samples to create false positives.

Of course, this is an extreme case of criminal activity within the criminal justice system- but it is also just the one who got caught.  We can never know how many people are wrongfully imprisoned because of such tampering.

Read the full Slate article here.

Out for Good: An Overview of Reentry Efforts in Tompkins County

America spends billions on it’s prison system…but shrinks from funding vital and necessary reentry programs. People often don’t consider the incredible difficulties released inmates have to deal with when reentering society, and the general lack of quality programs and resources to aid in that societal reintegration.
Quality reentry programs are proven to reduce recidivism. Why are they not getting more funding?

Keri Blakinger

Every year, close to 700,000 people are released from jails and prisons in the United States. More than 700 of them are released from the jail right here in Tompkins County.

Those individuals are “reentering citizens,” and, as criminal justice reform moves into the national spotlight, reentry is just one aspect of reform that is gaining steam locally. Reentering citizens can face an array of challenges, including finding a job when they have a criminal record, securing housing without any savings, and transportation to meeting parole and probation requirements.

José Peliot of Civic Ensemble

Ten years ago, there was relatively little to speak of in the way of reentry efforts in Tompkins County. Now there’s a smattering of local groups dedicating resources to everything from college preparation to acting, all in the name of reentry.

Reentry Subcommittee

One big player in local reentry efforts could be the county government. In its current iteration the 2016…

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One injustice is being remedied: the cost of prison calls

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Calls to and from inmates at America’s correctional institutions have long been an exorbitant expense for the loved ones of inmates.  These mothers, wives, husbands and children of the incarcerated have had to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars a year to speak with their loved ones.

I have personally felt the sting of expensive correctional calls: in one month, I spent about $150 on phone calls, getting a 15-minute phone call every other day.  For every $20 I deposited into my phone account for the inmate to call me, $6.95 of that was eaten up immediately in “administrative fees”.

This month, however, the FCC did right: it capped the cost of correctional phone calls.  Read more here.

Mass Incarceration: Increases Crime, Destroys Lives

The idea is simple and seemingly a truism: round up all the bad guys, lock ‘em up, and crime will go down. The American criminal justice system has obviously bought into this idea: current incarceration rates show that 5% of the American population will have been imprisoned at some point in their lives (bjs.gov).

The problem with this logic, and the prevailing criminal justice system, is that it is a fallacy. Mass incarceration, unequivocally, DOES NOT decrease crime or recidivism. In fact, the opposite is true.

There are two main reasons why the “Lock ‘Em Up” approach is such a colossal failure. First, that mass incarceration does not act as an effective deterrent to crime, and second, that imprisonment ruins life prospects and therefore increases recidivism rates.

The majority of people do not need a major deterrent not to commit crimes. People are social animals, and the drives for acceptance and social acceptance (in addition to morals) are more than an adequate barrier to an outsider life of crime. However, the majority of people begin their criminal careers between the ages of 15-25, when they are most impulsive and don’t think in the long term. Even if getting caught and a harsh sentence are highly likely, the mind set is often “It won’t happen to me”.

This issue is compounded by the fact that getting caught isn’t necessarily certain and that sentencing length is all over the map- a landmark study by Michigan professor Mueller-Smith showed that sentencing was highly dependent on what judge gets your case or how busy the courts are in a given period (quartz.com).

The second reason may truly be the root of why mass incarceration is such a tragically flawed policy. It ruins lives. Socially, economically and spiritually.

Take the case of Jay* (name changed), whom I know personally. Jay was the All-American hero growing up: Eagle Scout, active in his church, Co-Captain of the football team, and joined the Army Reserves after graduating high school. An avid outdoorsman, Jay had his fair share of extreme sports injuries and ended up getting prescribed Oxycontin for a particularly bad shoulder injury. Within 6 months he was addicted, and ended up turning to heroin when the Oxycontin became too expensive.

Like most drug addicts, Jay ended up in jail because of his addiction. He had never stolen or become violent: he was arrested trying to shoot up in a bathroom at the mall where he worked. Jay describes what happened when he woke up from his drug detox in jail:

“I realized I had a felony now- I was a felon. I had lost my right to vote, lost my job, lost pretty much everything. I knew I could handle jail; it was what my life would be like after I got out that terrified me. Who hires a felon? Who marries a felon? I felt my life sucked away from me.”

Jay would be branded a felon for life- unable to vote, unlikely to secure a good job despite his college degree and military service, no help for his addiction and generally looked at as a second-class citizen.  All for a non-violent drug offense. That’s the true tragedy and failure of mass incarceration.

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“Their Punishments Didn’t Fit the Crime”

 

In July, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders.  14 of them had been sentenced to life in prison for non-violent drug offenses.  The president stated that, “…I’m determined to do my part wherever I can” to right the injustices of the criminal justice system.

Obama is trying to rectify a system that is deeply flawed in both it’s sentencing and the application of those sentences.  The sad truth is that the poor and minority are disproportionately sentenced harshly by the current system, and those with economic or social means are able to escape the fate of their less fortunate citizens.

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One of those granted clemency, Douglas Lindsay, is emblematic of those wronged by the system.  Lindsay, an African American, poor army veteran, was convicted of a nonviolent drug crime (possession and intent to distribute crack) and was sentenced to life in prison.  If Douglas had been white, wealthy, and caught with powder cocaine…well, he probably would have gotten probation with a good (read: expensive) lawyer.

 

 

“A Living Death”

“For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.”

The ACLU has published a report on the 3,278 people who are serving LIFE in prison for nonviolent offenses.  Much of this is due to racial sentencing disparities.  Whatever the cause, these thousands of nonviolent offenders are robbed of a life; because life in America’s violent, soul sucking corrections system is not really a life at all.  Read the report here.

No Treatment for Addicts

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A recent report by Casa Columbia found that although 65% of inmates met DSM -IV medical criteria for addiction, only 11% received any treatment while incarcerated.

Our current criminal justice system isn’t “fixing” anything…it ignore the root causes of crime and perpetuates the incarceration cycle.  The phrase “Band-Aid for a bullet wound” springs to mind.  Or perhaps, “Band-Aid covered in arsenic for a paper cut” is more apt.

Read Casa’s Report here.