Maintaining the Momentum

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The American judicial and justice system contains poor policies. Many people serve their sentence in the prison system without judicial cases. Others have undergone conviction due to petty crimes that require them to serve short periods. However, such individuals remain in prison for a longer period compared to their actual sentence. The American sentencing system remains to offer unfair sentence to inmates. Therefore, the criminal justice should undergo reform to create justice among the inmates. The statistics from the national survey states that the prison population has grown by over 800% compared to the country’s initial population that has only increased by 33% (Mortimer). According to overall statistics, the country’s population figure forms 5% of the world’s population with 25% acting as prisoners. The prison population growth rate has increased within a period of three decades since the year 1989 (Mortimer).

The increasing record comes from the explosion panic on drug addiction towards marijuana, heroin and alcohol that took place in the 1980s. The tripping point occurred when the country experienced a crack cocaine storm. The Congress introduced a compulsory sentencing to the abusers to five-year sentence. Since 1980s the huge composition of the prison population come from the drug abusers and addicts. The sentence contains unreasonable punishments to the inmates. Those who come out of prison end up in worse conditions compared to how they joined the prisons. The industries and the employment sectors fail to employ ex-convicts since they consider them dangerous. The Congress has done nothing for the past two decades to improve the status of ex-convicts in the society. They remain to handle their fate without help from the government.

The states justice department should reduce sentences on drug abuse. Serving more than 25 years for making sales on pain pills to a colleague turns out to be unrealistic. The justice department should reduce the years and change the sentencing policies that give the federal justice powers to pass such sentences. Other sentences that the state should change include the ones charged on fraud artists, tax evaders, and thieves. However, the individuals should be subjected to severe penalties in case they retrogress. The only individuals that should undergo serious charges and penalties should be the violent and dangerous drug traffickers. Such individuals cause chaos and may affect the rights to life of the citizens in the country. The federal reforms should inculcate a program that enables the ex-convicts to re-enter the society and gain full control of their lives.

The state spends more than $59 billion a year on prison services (Mortimer). Good reforms shield the states against having huge expenditures on the inmates. The states should reject the aspect of building new prisons and focus on improving the current status of the available prisons through reform programs. The federal programs should ensure that they focus on training the prisoners on how to improve their livelihood in case they come out of the prisons. Most of the prisons should ensure that they introduce a probation system that prevents most people from going to prison. Probation enables a convict to undergo a positive change in behavior. It also enables the state to save more than a quarter of its prison budget and channel the money to other state projects. The states should also train their prison wardens on how to handle the convicts while serving their sentences.

Source: www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2014/05/09/its-time-for-prison-reform-and-an-end-to-mandatory-minimum-sentences

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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.

Budget Trends Show That the U.S. Values Prisoners Over Children

The American prison system is in dire need of a fundamental transformation. This system built on mass incarceration is costly and ineffective.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, about 25% of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in America, even though it hosts only 5% of the world’s population. Harsh sentencing practices such as long minimum sentences and harsh penalties for minor drug possession have filled up our prisons to populations that rise above those of Russia and China.

The US spends far more money imprisoning its citizens than educating them. The following gif compares the costs of educating a child vs the costs of housing a prisoner.

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Housing a prisoner costs roughly five times as much as educating a student in California, Washington and Utah. In dozens of other states, the cost of imprisoning someone is far more than double or triple the cost of educating a student.

If state budget trends reflect policy priorities, then the U.S. currently values prisoners over children. A report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the growth of state spending on prisons has far outpaced the growth of spending on education in recent years. “After adjusting for inflation, state general fund spending on prison-related expenses increased over 140 percent between 1986 and 2013. During the same period, state spending on K-12 education increased only 69 percent, while higher education saw an increase of less than six percent.”

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In fact, since 2008, spending on education has declined in a majority of states.

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In an interview with the Huffington Post, Michael Mitchell, a co-author of the report and a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, suggested that education spending could actually help lower incarceration rates. “When you look at prisoners, people who get sent to prison and their educational levels are typically much lower than individuals who are not sent to prison,” said Mitchell. “Being a high school dropout dramatically increases your likelihood of being sent to prison.” He added that those dollars spent locking people could’ve been dollars spent to provide pre-k slots or financial aid.

The report suggests that states’ spending practices are ultimately harming their economies, while not making the states especially safer. The authors of the report conclude that if “states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”

The U.S. incarceration system is basically an inversion of its education system. Although the public school system in this country is inherently flawed, children emerge with knowledge and skills that allow them to contribute more effectively to society. On the other hand, the harsh prison system systematically fails to rehabilitate its inmates. Nearly two-thirds of the inmates released every year return to prison. Those that manage to remain outside of it are often worse off than before they were incarcerated, as they face discrimination in housing, employment and political participation.

If more money were spent on sustaining an education system that met the needs of all of its students, maybe so much money wouldn’t be spent on putting people behind bars.

“The types of investments to help people out of poverty and break that school-to-prison pipeline are investments in early education, helping youth stay in school and getting them on college campuses,” said Mitchell.

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.