The United States has 5% of the world population but 25% of its prison population in spite of the fact that the violent crime rate is the lowest it has been in 40 years. Since the mid-1970s the California prison population has grown by 750% driven by sentencing laws based largely on fear, ignorance and vengeance.
But in other states, low crime rates and shrinking state coffers have led to a consensus among lawmakers and advocates across the ideological spectrum that our addiction to incarceration is not sustainable, effective or humane. States as varied as Texas, Arkansas, New York, Colorado and Michigan have passed reforms reducing prison populations without an increase in crime. They have reduced prison terms by diverting low-level drug offenders into treatment programs, releasing elderly or well-behaved inmates early and expanding job training and re-entry and job opportunities.
It’s time for us to stop criminalizing the mentally ill and redirect the millions ($80 million in 2010) we spend to warehouse them in prison into programs such as dual diagnosis or Harm Reduction to address and treat their brain illnesses. Wouldn’t that be a new humane approach? Our criminal justice system has too often focused on vengeance and punishment rather than on crime prevention and programs to successfully re-integrate inmates into their communities. People coming out of prison need safe housing, drug treatment and job opportunities yet a report in 2012 showed 47% of California prisoners returned to prison within a year of their release (a significantly higher rate than the national average) because these programs are few and far between.
The California state prison system has been described as “criminogenic” referring to its high propensity to make inmates more likely to offend again after their release. It’s time to create a system in which prison beds are reserved for only those offenders who can’t be safely and successfully punished and corrected in more effective and cost-efficient ways.
- Opinion: Why did justice on incarceration take so long? (cnn.com)
- American’s shame_highest incarceration rate in the world (kansascity.com)
- The Architecture of Incarceration: Can Design Affect the Prison System? (archdaily.com)
- Viewpoints: Criminal justice needs fundamental changes (sacbee.com)
- U.S. wakes up to its prison nightmare (globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com)