When ‘hang ’em’ all meets ‘free ’em all’

The so­lu­tion to mass in­car­cer­a­tion is not throw­ing open the prison doors

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By David A. Keene

Po­lit­i­cal de­mands for an end to what activists and the me­dia like to call mass in­car­cer­a­tion are all the rage th­ese days, but the bi­par­ti­san will­ing­ness to look at what works and doesn’t work in to­day’s bro­ken crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that has emerged in re­cent years is be­ing over­taken or hi­jacked by ide­o­log­i­cal huck­sters who seem more in­ter­ested in making po­lit­i­cal state­ments than in find­ing real-world so­lu­tions to se­ri­ous prob­lems.

The ques­tion of who is in prison and for what rea­sons is less im­por­tant to many than making of­ten myth­i­cal points.

The re­sult has been the prop­a­ga­tion of myths that don’t hold up un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. One of th­ese is that our jails and pris­ons are over­crowded be­cause they are filled with small-time drug of­fend­ers who don’t be­long there.

It is true that in­car­cer­at­ing drug users for pos­ses­sion of small amounts of drugs for per­sonal use makes lit­tle sense, but to leap to the con­clu­sion that mi­nor drug crimes are the rea­son this coun­try has so many of its cit­i­zens be­hind bars is non­sen­si­cal.

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s re­cent claim that our pris­ons are stuffed full of mar­i­juana users could only be made by some­one who hasn’t spent more than two min­utes study­ing her brief­ing ma­te­rial.

Only a lit­tle more than 15 per­cent of those in our state pris­ons to­day are there for drug of­fenses, and most of those serv­ing time for drug of­fenses in both the state and fed­eral pris­ons are not there for smok­ing a joint, but for deal­ing in ma­jor drugs.

Even if ev­ery mi­nor drug of­fender now serv­ing time is let out tomorrow, our pris­ons would still be over­crowded be­cause we lock up way too many peo­ple for a whole va­ri­ety of of­ten com­pli­cated rea­sons.

Pat Nolan, a for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tor who has spent decades lob­by­ing for crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, sug­gests that we in­car­cer­ate peo­ple we’re sim­ply mad at rather than to get those who are a real dan­ger to so­ci­ety off the streets.

Recre­ational non­vi­o­lent drug users fall into the cat­e­gory of those we are mad at; vi­o­lent drug traf­fick­ers do not. A gun-wield­ing gang mem­ber who robs a con­ve­nience store or bank be­longs be­hind bars, as does the rapist and pe­dophile. But can the same be said for a teenager who steals a car for a joy ride, a sin­gle mom caught shoplift­ing or a cor­po­rate em­bez­zler?

The ev­i­dence sug­gests that there are bet­ter and less costly ways of deal­ing with most law­break­ers than toss­ing them into prison and at least fig­u­ra­tively throw­ing away the key.

Manda­tory-min­i­mum, one-size-fits-all sen­tenc­ing, three strikes laws and the elim­i­na­tion of pa­role, com­bined with the re­quire­ment that those run­ning afoul of the mind-numb­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion of state and fed­eral laws be given time be­hind bars, are the real prob­lem, not a mind­less cam­paign to lock up teenagers caught smok­ing pot.

Prison pop­u­la­tions have grown even as crime rates have dropped be­cause of more ef­fi­cient polic­ing and pros­e­cu­tors who have brought felony charges far more fre­quently than in the past. It is a sys­tem that too of­ten forces those charged to ac­cept prison time as part of a plea bar­gain to avoid even harsher sen­tences if they go to trial. Add to this the fact that our jails and pris­ons are to­day hold­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of the mentally ill who would be bet­ter off if we had a func­tion­ing men­tal health care sys­tem in this coun­try and you end up with a prob­lem far more com­plex and dif­fi­cult to solve than those de­mand­ing a mass release of the in­car­cer­ated would have us be­lieve.

The dan­ger to­day is that we are fall­ing into the same rhetor­i­cal trap that cre­ated the prob­lem in the first place. As crime and violence in­creases for some of the same rea­sons it did in the late ’60s, and as the po­lit­i­cal bat­tle forces con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als into ide­o­log­i­cal camps, those in our pris­ons to­day — along with those who will be ar­rested tomorrow or next month — will pay the price. It is true that there are too many men and women in­car­cer­ated to­day and that our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem needs re­form, but it is sim­ply not true that all or most of those be­hind bars shouldn’t be there or that the prob­lem can be solved sim­ply by blam­ing it on racism or a crass in­sen­si­tiv­ity to the poor.

Those in­ter­ested in true re­form should tone it down a bit, get to­gether and look se­ri­ously at the prob­lem and at re­forms that will ac­tu­ally work, rather than sim­ply make them feel good. David A. Keene is Opin­ion Ed­i­tor at The Wash­ing­ton Times.


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