Sunday, January 15, 2017

Prison & Criminal Justice Reform

Since over 95% of prisoners will eventually be released, you have to ask yourself, do you want them to adjust back to society and stop committing crimes when they leave prison, or do you want them to continue reoffending? And do you want lower rates of crime in the future or more?

If the latter, then we should pretty much keep doing what we're doing, because the recidivism rate in the US is 76.6% after five years for state prisons and 44.9% for federal prisoners. So if your goal is to get as many people in prison as we can, and get as many of them as we can to commit more crimes upon release, you have to admit, we're doing a pretty good job. In fact, it wouldn't be absurd to blame someone for thinking that was indeed American's goal. We have the largest prison population in the world, by far, nearly double that of the next country on the list, China, which has four times our population. 

I don't think that anyone in their right mind would say what the US is doing now as far as its prison and criminal justice situation is what it should be doing. The fact of the matter is is that most of us agree with the same over all goals for our society: we want there to be less crime, and we want criminals who do go to prison to not commit additional crimes when they're released. Where we disagree is on how to achieve that common goal. 

Many Americans support retributive justice that often involve harsh penalties with a "lock them up and throw away the key" attitude where the conditions in prison should be as uncomfortable as possible. But this leads to the mass incarceration we have in the US with the high recidivism rates which are the very problems we want to resolve. So what do we do?

We reform our criminal justice system and our prisons. How do we do that? Here are some things we can do.

1) Legalize marijuana in all 50 states. Between 2001 and 2010 there were 8.2 million marijuana arrests in the US, 88% of which were for mere possession. That's over 900 thousand arrests a year, costing states $3.6 billion that could be used elsewhere. Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than white people despite similar usage rates. Arrests can mean losing job or public benefits which further hinders one's economic abilities. 46.4% of the 189,450 federal inmates are in for drug offenses, as of today. 15.7% of state prisoners were in jail for drug offenses as of 2015.

With 60% of Americans now supporting marijuana legalization, it's time to stop arresting hundreds of thousands of people and wasting billions of dollars on the war on marijuana. Given the trend, I think that in the next 10 years, the full legalization in all 50 states is a real possibility. It almost certainly won't happen under Trump, but hopefully if he's out in 2020 and we have a real progressive in the White House, that person can push for this reform.

2) Decriminalize the possession of all other drugs. In addition to the full legalization of marijuana, if anyone is caught merely possessing any other controlled substanec, they are not arrested, and at most are fined instead, with the level of the fine getting higher depending on the severity of the drug and the amount possessed. Everyone should get three strikes where for the first three times there is no fining. For particularly addictive drugs like crack, heroin, and meth, mandatory drug rehab can be applied instead of prison time after a certain number of offensives. This would ensure that no one in the US is ever put in jail for the mere possession of a controlled substance. This would significantly reduce the prison and jail populations and decrease costs.

3) Focus on the rehabilitation of prisoners not their punishment. Since at least 95% of all prisoners will eventually be released and we all want them to not commit more crimes, we should focus on rehabilitating prisoners to prepare them for the outside world. This can include job training, reading and writing education, programs to teach ethics and moral and personal responsibility. I think we should semi-militarize all of our prisons to teach discipline, responsibility, ethics, cooperation, and hard work. 

4) End all private and for-profit jails and prisons. It goes without saying that it's dangerous to have a profit motive tied to our criminal justice system. It allows the economic incentives that private corporations have in getting as many prisoners as possible to influence our laws and criminal justice system. The Department of Justice recently announced that it would not renew its contracts with private operated prisons, a move hailed by those seeking prison reform. The move by the DOJ, which oversees federal prisons, will eventually phase out all private prisons. Initially, the DOJ sought private prisons in order to cope with the massive growth in its prison population in the 1980s and 90s due in large part from increased drug arrests from the war on drugs. Marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization would resolve that problem. The effort now is on to do the same thing with the Department of Homeland Security and state prisons and jails.

5) End draconian bail and parole policies. Even relatively low amounts of bail for minor offenses make it more difficult for people on the lower end of the economic spectrum to avoid jail time, while those with money often get to buy their way out of jail before trial. This forces many people to have to plead guilty because they cannot afford spending the time in jail awaiting trial and risking losing their jobs or their homes. We should implement pre-trial services nationwide where those arrested are assessed based on their flight risk and those who are deemed low are released without bail. It can cost as little as a 10th the amount of detention. We should make it as easy as possible for people on parole to schedule meetings with their officers, especially if it conflicts with their work schedules. And we should end probation and parole fees which if parolees don't pay, they get sent back to jail.

6) End mandatory minimums, especially for all non-violent offenses. No one should have to spend decades or even life in prison for drug offenses. Prison should focus on reform and when a person's reformation can be reasonably assessed they should be able to be released in all but the most heinous of offenses.

7) Stop asking if someone's been arrested on job interviews. Let the person at least be able to come in for an interview before it becomes aware that they've been arrested since job questionnaires offer little room for context. This will allow people who've spent time in jail or prison to more easily be able to find work after being released, which is often critical for them to keep from being arrested again.

If we did all 7 of these things we'd have a more rational criminal justice system, we'd have llower crime rates, have less prisoners, save billions of dollars, and have lower recidivism rates. The old conservative attitude of focusing on longer sentences and tougher prison conditions only creates more criminal activity and has been proven to fail. The US shouldn't be first in the world in the number and rate of people in prison. We need a scientific approach to what works and what doesn't work. And while I didn't have time to talk about things we can do before people get arrested, like fixing our education system, and cultivating better parenting skills, this certainly is a start.

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