LOWER PRISON POPULATIONS SAID ATTAINABLE WITHOUT COMPROMISING PUBLIC SAFETY
It is time for lawmakers to use “reason, rather than politics and emotion, to guide criminal justice policymaking,” according to a report by American Civil Liberties Union.
Longer sentences and mandatory minimums, fueled in part by the war on drugs, have led to an explosion in prison building over the last 40 years. In 2009, nearly 1.7 million people were arrested in the U.S. for non-violent drug charges — almost half were for marijuana possession. Individuals imprisoned for drug offenses make up 25 percent of the U.S. prison population, the report finds.
Staffing and maintaining these prisons have contributed to huge budgetary deficits in many states, the report finds.
These financial woes have led many political leaders to adopt smart-on-crime strategies that use evidence-based programs – such as diverting people charged with low-level drug offenses to treatment instead of incarceration. In addition, smart-on-crime policies do not automatically send people to prison who violate the technical terms of their probation and parole, according to the report.
The 2011 study is titled Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities. It details how several states with long histories of instituting tough on-crime policies have led to a 700 percent increase in the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. over the last four decades.
New York and Texas are pointed out in the report as examples of how to depopulate prisons while keeping crime rates low.
Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Ohio and Kentucky obtained bipartisan support for prison reform, while Louisiana, Maryland and Indiana have shown they are willing to move in the same direction, according to the report.
“We have to look at what works”
California is in the first year of its plan to reduce prison overcrowding and spending, called realignment. Realignment shifts some prisoners from doing time in the state prison system to county jails, and diverts most people from state parole to county probation. Officials say keeping offenders close to home would keep them better connected with their families and communities.
At a recent conference in Sacramento, sponsored by Capitol Weekly, panelists recommended additional ways for California to be smart-on crime.
“We need to put money into the community in jobs, housing and substance abuse treatment. If (an inmate) does not have a job or home in 30 days (upon being released from prison), there is an 88 percent chance they will go back to prison,” said Jim Gomez, president and CEO of California Association of Health Facilities.
Author Sasha Abramsky, whose latest work is American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, concurred. “We need proper drug treatment and proper education. We have to look at what works. There is nothing soft about this. There has to be a balance of punishment and rehabilitation. We also need to fix the juvenile system. We may not be able to fix the family, but maybe we can fix the child.”
The ACLU report identifies some of the disturbing trends that might undercut the potential for long-term success of reforms. For example, it says too many states are rejecting reforms that require short term investment of resources. Over the long-term, these programs will be “cost-effective for states, keep families and communities intact, and allow otherwise incarcerated individuals to contribute to society and the economy,” the report states.