By Ronald Fraser
At first glance it looks like America’s incarceration epidemic is winding down.
In California, for example, inmates are being released from overcrowded state prisons and non-violent drug offenders are receiving the equivalent of a speeding ticket. Police chiefs in Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and other cities, claiming long sentences do not effectively deter crime, are calling for alternatives to jail time.
And in Washington, the Justice Department is in the process of releasing up to 6,000 inmates serving unduly harsh sentences for drug-related offenses.
But wait. Releasing a few thousand inmates to cut skyrocketing prison costs and to fix court-ordered inhumane prison conditions does not dismantle America’s shameful prison culture that has filled our prisons and jails with more than 2 million people.
Let’s take a closer look at the entrenched prison culture that makes it is so easy to put non-violent people behind bars.
• For decades, in response to popular calls for harsh penalties, elected lawmakers, not judges or professional criminal justice officials, have dictated who goes to prison and for how long.
• Studies show that legislatures are more prone to pass stiff mandatory minimum laws in the weeks before lawmakers face an election. And elected judges in competitive districts tend to favor harsher sentences.
• According to the Bureau of Labor, in 2014, prisons and jails in America employed 434,000 correctional officers and jailers. And prison guard unions skillfully work the halls of state legislatures lobbying for laws that will keep their members on the job.
The combined justice systems employment at all levels of government – including police officers, court workers, probation and correctional staffers – topped more than 2.4 million in 2012, or about one person for every inmate.
• Private prison companies and companies that build and supply prisons with food, furniture and other equipment items also benefit from punitive laws that fill prisons.
• Public officials representing high unemployment rural areas consider prisons a prime employment opportunity for their citizens.
Since the economic well-being of millions of people is at stake, ending prison-mania will not be quick or easy.
What is needed is a fundamental rethinking of the role of prisons in America, of who belongs in them and who does not.
It is time to stop using prisons as a retributive response to all manner of crimes great and small without regard for the harm done to non-violent inmates who need help, not punishment.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.