September 8, 2008
"Real commander needed for the war on drugs"
The title of this post is the title of this effective column in the Seattle Times by Neal Pierce. Here are a few excerpts:
Will America's ill-starred "war on drugs" and its expanding prison culture make it into the presidential campaign? Standard wisdom says "no way."
We may have the world's highest rate of incarceration — with only 5 percent of global population, 25 percent of prisoners worldwide. We may be throwing hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, many barely of age, behind bars — one reason a stunning one out of every 100 Americans is now imprisoned. We may have created a huge "prison-industrial complex" of prison builders, contractors and swollen criminal justice bureaucracies.
Federal, state and local outlays for law enforcement and incarceration are costing, according to a Senate committee estimate, a stunning $200 billion annually, siphoning off funds from enterprises that actually build our future: universities, schools, health, infrastructure....
A serious set of problems, a shadow over our national future? No doubt. But do our politicians talk much about alternatives? No way — they typically find it too risky to be attacked as "soft on crime."...
Talk about a serious national issue on which we could use some presidential leadership — not dictating precise answers, but moving us to debate alternatives. It's been 20 years since drugs and prisons have even been mentioned in the televised presidential debates. Maybe not just Obama but McCain too could surprise us with some fresh ideas and promise of leadership as president. But we probably won't hear this unless reporters press the issue.
Some related posts:
"Jail and Jesus"
The title of this post is the title of this terrific column in USA Today by Tom Krattenmaker, which begins with a question that ought to be asked of everyone running for national office who makes much of their faith:
The Bible is heavy on redemption, and the plight of prisoners is a recurring theme in the New Testament. With 1 in 100 American adults incarcerated, are Christians doing enough to address the root causes of this prison explosion?
Here are some more snippets from today's must read:
"Jesus for President!" So proclaims a progressive Christian movement aiming to tweak the national conscience. Recent trend lines in the country suggest an even more provocative tagline for our consideration: "Jesus for Parole." That's right. Jesus is imprisoned — at least in the view of an increasingly vocal set of Christians spurred into action by some deeply troubling truths about America and our bursting-at-the-seams prison system.
The concern seems as well placed as it is challenging. The United States has crossed, for the first time, a dismal threshold: One out of every 100 American adults is in prison, according to the Pew Center on the States. Five states have reached the point where they are spending as much or more on corrections than they do on higher education systems. To place it all in perspective, consider that America has approximately 5% of the world population but about 25% of the world's prison population.
The fact that violent crime, according to the Justice Department, has dropped over the same three decades of surging prison-population growth poses a complex tangle: Is less crime the product of get-tough enforcement and sentencing, or are we just incarcerating more low-level offenders who don't need to be in prison? Probably some of both. But whatever the case, the situation is enough to chew on the conscience of any follower of a religion that emphasizes compassion and redemption. Multitudes of Americans are languishing in prison — and it's all suggestive of something deeper afflicting the soul of the nation....
Andrew Skotnicki is a former Catholic priest and ex-prison chaplain with a challenging proposition for the nation's religious believers: Those 2 million men and women in America's prisons? They're Jesus, he says.
Skotnicki, author of the book Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church, is not suggesting that convicts are all misunderstood angels who should be let loose. He sees great value in penitence — the process of transgressors' removal from society followed by reflection, reform and acceptance back into the community. But our prison system falls appallingly short of that ideal, he believes.... "The Scripture's pretty clear," Skotnicki says. "There's a real affinity for the imprisoned. God hears the cries of the imprisoned throughout the Scriptures. Whether the prisoners in question are in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, whether they're mass murderers, sex offenders — whoever — Jesus says that when you visit a prisoner, 'you visit me.' "...
Is the world's No. 1 "Christian nation" ready to acknowledge the humanity of prisoners and follow the courses of action that might logically follow — including work on those aspects of "the system" that have contributed to America becoming the world leader in incarcerations? If not, count on prison ministry remaining a very active front. Because the nation's believers are going to have a lot of Jesuses to visit behind those prison gates.
September 7, 2008
Talk of alternatives out west
I am in the middle of a western swing: I had the honor of talking about sentencing at the Tenth Circuit conference this past Friday in Colorado Springs, and now I am in Tucson to participate in this great event on "New Media and the Courts" at the Rehnquist Center. Hotel connectivity has allowed me to keep up with the sentencing news, and I was intrigued to see these two items from the west with incarceration alternatives as a unifying theme:
- From Nevada, here is a local editorial headlined "Overcrowded prisons: State Legislature should consider alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders."
- From California, here is an article on an upcoming high-profile sentencing headlined "Samueli's Attorneys Suggest Fines, Probation For Billionaire"
I am not sure either piece will help me sound smart at the new media symposium this week, but I kind of think continued blogging is a must to justify my participation in the event.
Important (though incomplete) op-ed on mass incarceration and mercy
Professor Carol Steiker has this interesting column in the Sunday Washington Post, headlined "Passing the Buck on Mercy." The piece begins by discussing the debate over the sentencing of long-time fugitive Susan LeFevre (background here), and then turns to making broader points about mass incarceration and mercy. Here are some excerpts:
Sitting in her cell in Plymouth, Mich., LeFevre is one of 2 million Americans behind bars. Many of them, like LeFevre, are nonviolent drug offenders. The staggering number of American prisoners has made the United States the world's leading incarcerator; this nation locks up a greater number of offenders for longer periods than any other nation. In 1960, approximately 330,000 people were behind bars in the United States. Today the number is 2.3 million. Moreover, largely because of the "war on drugs," the increase in women's incarceration in recent years has far outstripped the increase in men's, devastating many families and communities.
How did we scale the soaring peaks of mass incarceration? The decline of mercy has played a leading role. With the noble intent of bringing rationality and order to what had often been a chaotic and even discriminatory system of criminal justice, reformers at every stage of the justice system have sought to limit the power of discretionary actors to say no to punitive policies.
Consider: Police departments have instituted mandatory arrest and "zero tolerance" policies that have swept up many low-level offenders. Prosecutors' offices have given instructions, such as those issued by a series of Republican attorneys general, to charge only the most serious provable offenses, no matter what the circumstances. Juries have convicted defendants on charges without any inkling of the sentencing consequences. The ability of sentencing judges to respond to cases on their individual merits has been sharply curtailed or destroyed by sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences. And the granting of executive clemency has radically declined, not just in the Bush administration but also in governors' offices around the country....
An exit strategy from this upward spiral of incarceration lies in revitalizing the exercise of mercy. Yes, mercy carries the risk of arbitrariness and discrimination. Soccer moms such as LeFevre may seem to be more appealing defendants than many others who have committed nonviolent crimes. But mass incarceration has had an enormous impact on poor and minority communities. Only by reconsidering individual cases and questioning the necessity and desirability of punishment can we turn back from the prison state that we have become.
Our Founding Fathers understood the importance of checks and balances, but no one is checking or balancing the decisions that are causing our prisons to overflow. By reinvigorating the veto power of actors all along the justice system, we may save individuals from unnecessarily destroyed lives. We may save money in these economically trying times. But most important, we may save ourselves -- by preserving the value of mercy.
The remarkable LeFevre provides an effective setting for considering the place of mercy in our criminal justice system. But I think mercy and other concepts can only be an effective theme for reforming punitive laws and policies if effectively linked to American values. Professor Steiker does this a bit in her final paragraph, but the link between checks and balances and acts of mercy feels a bit strained.
Of course, what the Framers were clearly trying to promote and safeguard through check and balances was the "blessings of liberty" (to use words from the Constitution's preamble) through the creation of a government that would help secure citizen's rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (to use words from the Declaration of Independence's preamble). In may view, the problem with mass incarceration and punitive policy lies not so much in the diminished value of mercy, but more fundamentally to the diminished commitment to human liberty within the United States.
But what is really missing in Professor Steiker's discussion is a failure to call national politicians to account for mass incarceration and continued acceptance of expensive punitive policies. Especially with this piece appearing in the Washington Post, I would have like a few sentences noting and criticizing the failure of either presidential candidate to address these issues. Indeed, linking this political point to the Framers' concerns, I keep hoping someone would ask the candidates whether they think the Framers would be proud to know that the United States is now the world's leader in incarceration rates.
Some related posts:
- How the media can do better: ask the candidates tough crime and punishment questions
- "Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?"