Thursday, August 4, 2011

Let the convicts go?

Prison reform was already on my mind, but then last week I toured the Utah State Prison. Something needs to happen. And not just of the sake of the convicts.

States who have increased incarceration efforts have actually seen increases in crime rates, not decreases. We cannot continue to keep dumping people who are demonstrating anti-social behavior into such a toxic environment and then expect they will come out "cured." The recidivism rate is staggeringly high. We know what's happening and yet we continue to throw people in, knowing full well they will be more dangerous and more likely to harm more victims upon release.

Perhaps even worse are people who really shouldn't be there in the first place. Since state run mental health institutions were largely shut down (and for good reason) in the 1970s, the U.S. prison system has become the #1 provider for the mentally ill. This is unconscionable. Can you think of a worse place to treat mental illness than prison? Or what about low-level drug addicts?These people need treatment, intervention, and a job. They do not need to be locked away from society for a year or two where they are learning from the lowest and most crime-prone we have to offer at ridiculously high costs to taxpayers. We could be getting these people multiple college degrees for the price we are paying to have them "educated" by thieves, rapists, and dealers. It's a waste of both financial and human resources.

Please don't misunderstand me. There is a place and a need for incarceration. I'm working on two cases right now where it is clear there is just no other solution to keeping the community safe from continued attacks by these people. Serial rapists can't be rehabilitated. Anyone who rapes and beats a 72-year-old woman to death with no remorse and then blames her for the attack deserves life in prison or worse. And how else do you keep white collar criminals from defrauding innocent victims except by locking them away? But the system is broken and when we are locking away people who by and large have committed non-violent crimes and constitute no threat to society except perhaps general stupidity, there has got to be another way.

So here's my list of prison reform reads and listens: In Defense of Flogging. This NPR report about the book by Peter Mosko has many interesting points. It defends corporal punishment as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent crimes. Not necessarily my version of reform, but creative and designed to at least move the discussion forward. Next, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The former Supreme Court law clerk, ACLU attorney, and now prison reform activist exposes the systematic incarceration of black men. Her main point? Blacks will never have equal voting power in our democracy when so many of them are being unfairly slapped with "felony" status eliminating their right to vote. And the move from the KKK intimidation to poll taxes or literacy tests to keep the black vote out to targeting black men for felonies was purposeful. I'm skeptical of any conspiracy theory. But her numbers are hard to discount. If you don't want to read the book, but are curious/skeptical of what she has to say, a short summary she wrote is here and one of the most interesting NPR reports I've listened to is here. And finally, this piece by Pat Nolan and Newt Gingrich. See? I'm all over the political spectrum today. From ACLU to Gingrich. But I guess that's the point. Prison reform isn't a political issue. It's a safety issue and a humanity issue. Everyone from all parties agrees the system is broken and people from all parties largely agree on how things could be improved. The problem is getting this into the forefront. The people making the decisions (voters like us) aren't in prison so it's not really impacting us. And most of us know so little about how the system works we are afraid that tweaking it will mean more hardened criminals on the streets, not less. Not so, says Gingrich. And finally, this New York Times piece by one of my professors about changing the way we approach parole.



Miranda said...

I learned this from QI (love that show!) that 1% of the US population is in prison. That makes over 3 million, which is higher than any other country including China, which has a population five times that of the US. There are more 19-year-old African-American men in prison than there are in college. I'm not sure what that means.

Tiona said...

Part of my nursing classes included a class on mental health. We took tour of the county jail and learned about mental illnesses. As a nurse, I have had the opportunity to take care of a handful of prisoners (none of them mentally ill, by the way). It is appalling to me as a medical professional to think about what our justice system does for people in need of real help for mental illnesses. Often times, they are unrecognized, untreated, and improperly cared for. Our police officers are often unprepared and untrained for handling the mentally ill. I agree that our prison system is needs reform, not just in terms of medical care. We often take the attitude of locking somebody up and then letting them go without doing anything to try to reform them.

sorry...I know this is long and rambling. I have a lot of feelings on this topic and it's hard to get them all out in logical form at 4 in the morning.

Kristen said...

State mental health facilities WERE shut down for a good reasons. Today, however, I know first hand that they are being subjected to tabloid-like slander for economic reasons rather than abuse, neglect, or mistreatment. It's so easy to take funding from such a small group--especially since very few care to speak up for a group so oppressed by society that no one bothers to hear what they have to say (some of it's good if you take the time to understand). Mental health professionals work on shoestring budgets to create a therapeutic community for people who can't find help elsewhere. Some of them are involuntarily committed, but surprisingly, so many more arrive by bus, or get dropped off by a friend and check themselves in at the front lobby. They know it's a safe place where they'll receive support and respect when they don't feel well. By getting people off the streets when their medications need adjusting, or their minds need rest, we lower crime rates, and bestow dignity--among other things. There are beautiful, loving people in both the medical and the social work fields within these hospitals. There are beautiful and wonderful people who are patients, both long and short term, in these facilities. And while I'm ALL about rehabilitative therapies for people with the capacity and/or desire to live outside a psychiatric hospital--I strongly believe it's the best home others have ever known. If I ever become rich, this will be my fight.

Jackie said...

I completely agree with you. I've always felt strongly about this issue. I've heard a few NPR reports on the subject as well. Seth has a misdemeanor for something incredibly stupid (slapped by a Provo judge). Just that misdemeanor creates such stress and problems when applying for jobs, school, etc. Now, people who have jail time on their record, it's a thousand times harder. In my eyes, it's nearly impossible to come out of prison and start fresh, be a reformed person, because your opportunities are so limited. It's incredibly easy to fall back into old habits when you have needs going unfulfilled. The system is so reactionary and punitive instead of preventative, it's alarming. There is no easy fix, but it is definitely broken.

Cari said...

I agree that something needs to happen I just haven't yet found a solution I think is the right one.

KSL featured a piece a few months back about Drug Court. From what they reported the approach the court is taking is working and more and more people are learning to deal with their addictions and become functioning and contributing members of society. Maybe an approach similar to this for other types of offenses would work as well.

I also think legalizing marijuana would reduce some of the prison population that, if freed, would contribute to society in a positive way.