Bill Keller of the New York Times recently wrote an opinion piece entitled “America on Probation” about the current effort to fix our criminal justice system. It’s about time because our prisons are an international disgrace. The following are some of the remedies he cited:
Sentencing: The 70’s crack epidemic set off a binge of punitive sentencing laws which resulted in 3-strikes, mandatory minimum sentences and requirements that felons serve a minimum portion of their sentences (often 85%) which lengthened the time offenders (mostly black men) spent in lock-up. Recently, New York rolled back its notorious Rockefeller drug laws, California softened its three-strikes law and in spite of the stiff resistance from prosecutors, several other states have adjusted rigid sentencing.
Supervision: Two-thirds of paroled inmates end up back in prison within 3 years. Why is that? Parolees need supervision, education, and training so they can get a job and contribute to society but parole officers are too overworked with their case loads to provide such supervision.
A few jurisdictions have tried a new method by sending caseworkers out of the office into the community, or they use technology (A. T. M.-style check–in stations and Breathalyzer ignition locks to keep drinkers from driving) to enhance supervision. This results in a disciplinary approach called “swift and certain,” a punishment for missing an interview or failing a drug test giving the offender the message to change his behavior instead of going back to prison.
Diversion: Many jurisdictions now send drug offenders to special courts that divert nonviolent drug abusers to treatment instead of prison. More than 2,000 drug courts have been created spawning other venues such as veterans’ courts, domestic violence courts that aim to address problems rather than simply punish.
Re-Entry: We release more than 650,000 prisoners into society every year, usually by dropping them off at a curb or bus station in the middle of the night to fend for themselves. A number of programs have been created to improve the odds that a released felon will have options besides unemployment, homelessness and a return to crime. Governor Cuomo of New York recently announced funding for college classes in 10 state prisons. The initiative will offer inmates the opportunity to earn either an associates or bachelor’s degree over a 2-3 year period leading to the possibility of employment upon release.
Pre-release counseling and “Ban the Box” initiatives encourage employers to eliminate the box on job applications that ask if you’ve ever been arrested. A criminal history can still count against an ex-inmate in hiring but doesn’t eliminate him completely from consideration. (Target is the biggest retailer to ban the box).
Opposition: The biggest opposition to safe and humane alternatives to lockup comes from corrections employee unions protecting their jobs, from a private prison industry protecting profits and from prosecutors protecting their leverage.
Mind-set: What really has to change is our mindset about who prisoners are and who we are as a society. As one commentator wrote in response to Keller’s column, “Suburban Americans must give up the myth that we can incarcerate our way to a safe society.” Our fantasy that building more prisons will insulate us from the problems in society insults our humanity.
The Vera Institute recently did a comparative study of German and American prison systems. Germans treat their incarcerated citizens as adult human beings, which substantially lessens their proclivity to act as marginalized societal outliers who will return to prison at our great expense.