Eight common misconceptions debunked by
two separate Prison Policy Initiative reports
Incarceration is heavily featured in movies and television shows, which conjures up a narrow set of representations in peoples’ minds. However, a recent report by a respected criminal justice reform organization exposes eight common myths about mass incarceration.
The Prison Policy Initiative produced two reports, which provide an overview of the American criminal legal system. The reports are titled Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022 and Building exits off the highway to mass incarceration: Diversion programs explained (2021).
These systems are not one entity but thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems. As of March 2022, these institutions collectively hold almost two-million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails.
“As public support for criminal justice reform continues to build — and as the pandemic raises the stakes higher — it’s more important than ever that we get the facts straight and understand the big picture,” said PPI.
Myth One: Private prisons are the corrupt heart of mass incarceration.
The reports note that both private and public agencies profit from mass incarceration, however, only 8% of cells are contracted out to private companies. Publicly run federal and state institutions hold the majority of people in prisons and county jails.
“By privatizing services like phone calls, medical care, and commissary, prisons and jails are unloading the costs of incarceration onto incarcerated people and their families, trimming their budgets at an unconscionable social cost,” PPI said.
Private prison companies, while small in comparison, have created a multi-billion-dollar industry receiving contracts from prisons and jails to run food and health operations, repeatedly resulting in major lawsuits and criticism.
LAW & POLICY
VIET IMMIGRANT MAKES HISTORY
First Asian American elected to lead Sacramento County DA’s office
By Jerry Maleek Gearin
A Vietnamese immigrant was confirmed as the 5th Asian American ever elected in the U.S. to lead a District Attorney’s Office, according to NewsShark.
Thien Ho took office as Sacramento County’s 36th DA. Superior Court Judge Carlton David conducted the swearing-in ceremony.
“When you have the symbol of Lady Justice, on the one hand she has a sword, which represents accountability; the other hand is a scale that represents fairness, equality and balance,” Ho said.
He won the support of over 50% of the county voters, compared to former prosecutor Alana Mathews, who had less than 45%, NewsShark reports.
Ho previously worked in Sacramento County DA’s office for 18 years, and prosecuted the Golden State Killer, one of California most-publicized criminal cases.
A wall in the office displays 35 photographs of each of Sacramento’s previous district attorneys, along with some lawyers, prosecutors and judges, but none of them look like Ho, said NewsShark.
Ho plans to create a consultative council from the Asian, Latino, Black and LBGT communities. He expressed his awareness of distrust among these communities when it comes to the DA’s Office and policing.
“Out of 2,400 elected DAs in the country, I’ll be the fifth Asian American. But more than that, what is important is making sure that we represent all communities, and that’s what we need in our criminal justice system,” said Ho.
Jim Cooper took office as the first Black Sheriff of Sacramento County in December, just one month before Ho was elected.
nia was first in including recent cases from its prisons.
An incarcerated woman named Moonlight Pulido said she was told in 2005 that she had to have potentially cancerous growths removed from her body. After her surgery, she noticed that she was feeling abnormal and later was told by a nurse that she had a full hysterectomy. Pulido, who was 41 at the time of the surgery, said she was shocked.
“I’m a Native American, and we as women, we are grounded to Mother Earth. We’re the only life-givers, we’re the only ones that can give life and he stole that blessing from me,” she said. “I felt like less of a woman.”
After Pulido’s parole in 2022, she applied and received reparations of $15,000. “I sat there and looked at it and I cried. I cried because I have never had that much money in my life,” she said.
Myth Two: Prisons are factories behind fences that exist to provide companies with a huge slave labor force.
Prison labor on behalf of private companies under a federal program consists of less than 1% of the total incarcerated population. Six percent of the incarcerated population work under state-owned correctional industries.
Publicly run prisons rely on the efforts of incarcerated workers in specific areas like operations, food services, and laundry work. While this has been criticized, it has not been for the benefit of private companies.
“Work in prison is compulsory, with little regulation or oversight, and incarcerated workers have few rights and protections. If they refuse to work, incarcerated people face disciplinary action,” noted PPI.
Myth Three: Releasing nonviolent drug offenders would end mass incarceration.
One of every four individuals who are released will reoffend in the same year because of poverty, mental illness or substance abuse disorders, the reports say. These problems only worsen with incarceration.
“Problem-solving courts are intended to divert people with substance use or mental health disorders, and sometimes other circumstances. Individuals are linked to treatment facilities that require them to meet certain conditions after they’ve entered a plea,” according to a report on diversion programs by PPI.
Such courts are limited in scope and do not address the drug addiction that led the person to be arrested. Additionally, their punishments hurt employment opportunities and often lead to prison time.
Myth Four: Violent crime involves physical harm.
A shared misunderstanding is the word “violent.” This legal term has hindered criminal justice reform because of the reactionary responses of lawmakers to policies, which excludes 40% of incarcerated people who are convicted of crimes legally defined as “violent.”
Property crimes are against structures, but in certain situations like time of day or in the event someone is present, burglary can be considered a “violent” crime.
“Cutting incarceration rates … will be impossible without changing how we respond to violent crime. To start, we have to be clearer about what that loaded term really means,” according to PPI.
Myth Five: People in prison for violent or sexual crimes are too dangerous to be released.
Most violent and sexual crimes are judged by the type of offense, rather than the individual circumstance, the report noted.
Lawmakers and the public agree that a change needs to be made beyond just the low-hanging fruit of people convicted of non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual offenses.
“People convicted of violent and sexual offenses are actually among the least likely to be rearrested,” PPI said. “Those convicted of rape or sexual assaults have re-arrest rates 20% lower than all other offense categories combined.”
Myth Six: Crime victims support long prison sentences.
A popular narrative used by judges, prosecutors and policymakers is to speak the name of the victim in order to justify long sentences.
However, the report cites national survey data that shows most victims want crime prevention and alternatives to incarceration.
The report also notes, “People convicted of crimes are often victims themselves, complicating the moral argument for harsh punishments as justice.”
Myth Seven: Some people need to go to jail to get treatment and services.
Individuals cycle in and out without the proper medical or mental help making suicide the leading cause of death in local jails, the reports say.
Two-thirds of people in jail suffer from substance abuse disorders. Some jails offer medication-assisted treatment, but that is a tiny fraction for opioid use disorder.
“Between 2000 and 2018, the number of people who died of intoxication while in jail increased by almost 400%. … Jails are not safe detox facilities, nor are they capable of providing the therapeutic environment people require for long-term recovery and healing,” the report noted.
Myth Eight: Expanding community supervision is the best way to reduce incarceration.
“In 2019, at least 153,000 people were incarcerated for non-criminal violations of probation or parole, often called ‘technical violations,’” said the report.
However, minor infractions such as breaking curfew and large supervising fees are often frequent and difficult, which sets people back.
In conclusion, the report stated that “both policymakers and the public have the responsibility to carefully consider each individual slice of the carceral pie and ask whether legitimate social goals are served by putting each group behind bars, and whether any benefit really outweighs the social and fiscal costs.”