Do you believe in redemption? If you are the type of person who asks yourself "What would Jesus do?" how serious are you about answering honestly?
Consider this: If you're a middle-aged or older adult, think back to your teenage and young adult years and all the dumb things you did that could have resulted in your being arrested. Did you smoke pot or snort some coke or do some freebasing? Did you buy dope or sell it in any quantity? Did you live or "conspire" with folks who did? Did you ever drive while under the influence? Did you shoplift? Did you engage in "statutory rape" (meaning, when you were a "man" of 18 did you sleep with a "girl" of 17 or 16)?
What would life be like for you today had you been arrested for and convicted of any of these things? What if you're poor, African American, Latino, or Hispanic and you're arrested for one of these criminal acts? Is the process and result qualitatively different than if you're white and middle-class or rich? Yes.
We have a major problem in this country that we are finally beginning to acknowledge: Our extraordinary rate of incarcerating people and putting them under probation or parole supervision. Here are the facts: According to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, one in 31 of all Americans are either incarcerated in state prisons or are under probation or parole supervision. As of 2008, 2.3 million individuals were incarcerated in the United States. In the federal criminal justice system, which is separate from the state systems and is the single largest criminal justice system in the country, over 200,000 individuals are incarcerated and about 100,000 are either on federal probation or are serving terms of supervised release in the community.
Notably, approximately 27% of the population of the federal Bureau of Prisons consists of non-U.S. citizens. So, in essence, U.S. taxpayers are forking over about $25,000 per person per year to house something like 54,000 non-U.S. citizens. Do the math: That's $1,350,000,000 per year. The budget of the Bureau of Prisons is $6 billion and they're asking for more in fiscal year 2010. And what are most of those non-U.S. citizens in prison for? Duh: such outrageous immigration crimes as returning to the country after having been deported. Or, crossing the border illegally and carrying illegal drugs as part of the deal for being brought over by a coyote. These mules weren't coming to deal drugs. They were coming to work backbreaking jobs in restaurant kitchens, food processing plants, hotels, farms, and rich folks' homes so they could send money back home to their families. Are there non-U.S. citizens in the BOP who are gangbangers? Certainly, a few. Are some of them in prison for identity theft? Yes, but not because they wanted to steal millons from unsuspecting citizens; rather, because they needed IDs to get jobs. I'm not excusing this behavior; it is wrong, but is it worth up to two years in federal prison at $25,000 per year that we are paying?
During the past 25 years or so, the U.S. decided that the answer to our most pressing social problems was the criminal justice system. Addicted to illegal drugs (especially if you're poor)? You should go to prison. Need to come to the country illegally to work because there's no way you'll ever get a visa? You should go to prison....that is, unless, you are Salvadoran and came here illegally during that country's long civil war that was sponsored by....you guessed it.... the United States. You'll recall that, during the 1980s, the American People were sold a bill of goods by the Reagan and Bush administrations that "the communists" sponsored by the USSR who were taking power in Central America were going to invade the United States if we didn't do something about it. What we did was arm right-wing governments or political opponents who came complete with death squads (but who were favorably disposed toward U.S. corporate interests in their countries). So, if you were Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, or Guatemalan and you arrived in the States illegally, you were entitled to Temporary Protected Status which, eventually, became permanent. Now that Mexico is apparently in a civil war with drug gangs -- at least if you watch CNN that's the impression -- maybe we should give Mexican undocumented immigrants Temporary Protected Status too? That would legalize them and eliminate a reason for arresting and incarcerating many of them.
But my point is that prisons are probably the worst antidote to addiction, immigration, and poverty. As for addicts, about 55% of federal inmates were convicted of drug-related crimes. About 45% came into the system with addiction issues. Some are receiving treatment while in prison; many are not. Most are not receiving effective treatment because they are either not eligible to enter the Bureau's 500 hour residential drug treatment program, or they must get on the long line to be admitted since the program is underfunded and can't serve all who are eligible.
So, here we are: We have locked up drug addicts and immigrants. The vast majority of offenders are male and a disproportionate number are African American and Latino or Hispanic. Many are young adults and are being sentenced to long terms of incarceration. Most are poor. So, basically, they're screwed for the rest of their lives. By locking people up like this, we're making them worse when they come out of prison, which they ALL will. If you've got a criminal record, it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a job that pays a living wage, get a public housing voucher, and receive other federal and state benefits. I could go on, but you get the picture. It's ugly.
Our government has perpetrated a fraud with which we've gone along because we've rationalized that "criminals" are different from us: The government told us that locking all these folks up would solve our problems and we happily believed it because, again, we've dehumanized "criminals" or "offenders" or whatever we call them except "people." Crime rates have, overall, gone down in recent years but even as they've gone down, incarceration rates have continued to go up. So, we've created a new problem: How do we reintegrate the more than 600,000 offenders returning to our communities from prison each year?
At long last, beginning -- go figure -- with President Bush's 2004 State of the Union address in which he acknowledged that offenders are entitled to a second chance, criminal justice policies are changing. The awful economy -- really a 21st Century depression -- is helping to move the ball forward because, as noted above, prisons are expensive to build and maintain and states don't have the money to do it anymore. So they're contemplating or already engaging in major changes in policy that will lead to the release of thousands nonviolent offenders.
In 2008, a bipartisan group of U.S. congressmen and senators passed, and President Bush signed, the Second Chance Act, which is the first-ever comprehensive federal offender "reentry" legislation that authorizes the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to facilitate the successful reintegration of inmates back into the community. But, the funds are merely authorized. The Act has only been partially funded. We'll see whether full funding comes in the next fiscal year. My sense, however, is that the Act will be fully funded and, more than that, that in the coming months and years we will see enormous changes in our correctional systems. In addition to the Second Chance Act, there are many, smaller "under the radar" types of things happening in state and federal criminal justice systems that give me hope.
As for the interesting things happening in our federal courts, check out this article by Nick Phillips from the St. Louis Riverfront Times about some innovative treatment programs. For now I'd like to say that I think we're just beginning to come to terms with what we've done to people. Vulnerable people. Often ill people. People who've known nothing but poverty in their lives. We've put them in prison them for being vulnerable. For being sick. For being poor. For being young and stupid.
So, does this imply that we should not punish people for breaking criminal laws? Of course not. But first -- and this is my plea -- can we take a look at the laws they're breaking? Should we have laws that criminalize addiction? Should we have laws that criminalize entering this country illegally because of economic desperation? Should we have laws that criminalize the possession and sale of marijuana? Second, -- my plea continued -- can we please have an honest discussion of what constitutes "punishment"? I would posit that sending people to prison is taking the easy way out. Easy for us and "easy" for some the folks we're sending to prison. Forcing people to truly take responsibility for their actions... if they've harmed other individuals or clearly harmed the community... and to make them whole.... now that's difficult. Do we do that in our systems of punishment? Mostly not. We do have systems of restitution but they're not particularly effective even if the order is complied with. Some jurisdictions are engaging in "restorative justice." That's more like it, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
More on all this next time. Peace.