Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Incarceration Crisis Revisited -

(Cross-posted to Raising Kaine)

From the Washington Post comes the unsurprising news that more than one percent (1%) of all the adults in America are in jail or in prison. Record-High Ratio of Americans in Prison.

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars at the start of 2008, the United States leads the world in both the number and the percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving even far more populous China a distant second, noted the report by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.

The ballooning prison population is largely the result of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been hit particularly hard: One in nine black men age 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women age 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 white women in the same age group.

Last March Jim Webb surprised a lot of people by telling George Stephanopolous on This Week that
We've -- this is a chance to put a lot of issues on the table. One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy.

Talk about a voice crying out in the wilderness. Is anybody else even paying attention to this enormous social calamity? Can a society be called healthy which incarcerates so many of its members, and at least half the time for non-violent crimes rather than for actual crimes of violence or chronic recidivism? Something's wrong with this picture.
The article tells us
when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated population -- alternative punishments such as community supervision and mandatory drug counseling that are far less expensive may prove just as or more effective than jail time.

Florida, which nearly doubled its prison population over the past 15 years, has experienced a smaller drop in crime than New York, which, after a brief increase, reduced its number of inmates to below the 1993 level.

How about the money involved in jailing so many people?
over the past two decades, state spending on corrections (adjusted for inflation) increased by 127 percent, while spending on higher education rose by 21 percent. For every dollar Virginia spends on higher education, it now spends about 60 cents on corrections. Maryland spends 74 cents on corrections per higher-education dollar.

Despite reaching its latest milestone, the nation's incarcerated population has actually been growing far more slowly since 2000 than during the 1990s, when the spate of harsher sentencing laws began to take effect. These included a 1986 federal law mandating prison terms for crack cocaine offenses that were up to eight times as long as for those involving powder cocaine. In the early 1990s, states across the nation adopted "three-strikes-you're-out" laws and curtailed the discretion parole boards have in deciding when to release an inmate. As a result, between 1990 and 2000, the prison population swelled by about 80 percent, increasing by as much as 86,000 per year.

For over 20 years I've represented criminal defendants in the Virginia courts. Most of my clients have been lower income, minority, under-educated individuals with drug and alcohol problems. Some have significant mental health issues and are referred to as dual diagnosis.

Criminal defendants do not exist in a vacuum. Many have at least one child, at least one significant other (some have an impressive array of significant others, but I digress), and one or more parents or grandparents whose lives will be affected by their incarceration. Few things are more disheartening than watching a mother of young children go to prison for two or three years because her drug addiction is out of control and she steals to support it. It's difficult to tell distraught parents and dependents of such people that they may have to do without them for a few years. An extraordinary number of grandparents are raising their children's children or even their grandchildren's children. In these fractured families the children are at extremely high risk for early involvement in drugs, sex, and alcohol. The grandparents, lacking any financial contribution from incarcerated parents, are stretched to the limit.

There are diversion programs, and access to them has increased over the years. My only quibble with the article's statements about such programs is that they "may" be a better alternative. They ARE a better alternative. Diversion programs require the inmates to engage in counseling, critical self-analysis, job training, and proper management of their finances. Participants are required to pay their child support, address their addictions, learn new behaviors and take personal responsibility for their actions. Does anyone think warehousing people for years is even equal to the positive aspects of a diversion program?

Not everyone in a diversion program succeeds. Sometimes my clients are brought back before the court - it may be years after their diversion - for probation violations. Sometimes life's problems catch up with them and they decompensate, fall of the wagon, and re-offend. Mental health professionals understand this, that recovery from addiction is often a two steps forward/one step back type of process.

I could spend the next two hours highlighting my pet peeves with the criminal justice system. There are far too many offenses which have been labeled felonies, and far too many offenses which are actually symptomatic of social diseases or mental health disorders but which are aggressively prosecuted. There are few resources available for defendants who are genuinely mentally ill. Most diversion programs will not take dual diagnosis inmates. If they are bipolar, schizophrenic, suffering from other disorders requiring medication, then they are SOL when it comes to getting any help. We warehouse our mentally ill inmates and then kick them out into society to re-offend. Still, however, inmates who are eligible for diversion programs more often than not benefit from them. There are some good outpatient treatment programs and some good alternative diversion programs which gradually release inmates onto probation and into society. Some of my clients have gone through such programs, and years later I encounter them in the role of counselor to another inmate seeking diversion.


Catherine Morgan said...

I wanted you to know, that I nominated you for Women's Voices Making History. Your blog is on my list of over 300 women blogging about politics, and I am currently going through it, and nominating blogs that I think are most worthy. Anyone can nominate a blogger, so if you have others you would like to nominate, all you have to do is go to the site at Women's Voices, Women Vote. :-)



Catzmaw said...

Thank you. I'm honored ;)

I'll take a look at your site.