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February 8, 2009

A (too?) hopeful vision of the future for prison nation

The New York Daily News has this notable op-ed, headlined "Bend America's prison bars: The time is ripe for penal reform."  It starts with a call for reform and ends on a hopeful note:

America's penal system needs a top-to-bottom overhaul - and a movement of people ready to do something about it is taking shape nicely.

More than 2.1 million people are now behind bars in America — either in federal or state prisons or local jails — a larger proportion of the population than in any other civilized nation and a 500% increase since 1980. Another 5 million are under some kind of supervision, like parole, probation or house arrest, for a grand total of more than 7 million souls....

There is, unfortunately, a callous indifference in many sectors of society to the insanity of it all, the waste and futility and unfairness.

That's the bad news.  The good news is there's a growing consensus that the nation has gone too far — and that we must stop putting so much stress on our budgets and our morals.

A blizzard of books, papers, think tanks and forward-looking local officials have been pressing for reform over the last decade.... New York leaders have begun poring over a thick report, published by a special state sentencing commission, that calls for a range of reform.

After years of pressure, judges are getting more leeway to sentence drug-addicted offenders to treatment rather than prison.  And cash-strapped state governments are finally listening to reformers who say it's better — and cheaper — to pay for job and recreation programs than for prison cells.

The end is in sight for our nation's long, unhealthy love affair with mass incarceration. And not a moment too soon.

Because of the "callous indifference" rightly noted in this piece, I think modern mass incarceration is likely to get still worse before it starts getting better.  But I want to believe, in this era of supposed hope and change and with new concerns about ineffective government spending, that the "end is in sight." 

February 8, 2009 at 08:32 PM | Permalink


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I used to think an influential constituency for police-state reforms would emerge when the numbers of friends and relatives of folks rolled by the justice system (sic) expanded to a critical, hostile mass.

Now it appears the only hope for even marginal change is the rising pricetag of America's authoritarian, grand-inquisitor fascination with caging people on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Posted by: John K | Feb 10, 2009 11:00:48 AM

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