I stumbled across a piece today on CNN by Lisa Bloom, an attorney, legal analyst for Avvo.com and author of “Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture.” Lisa writes about one of my pet projects, over criminalization and over incarceration in the United States. This country leads the world in locking up it’s own citizens. We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth, including China which has four times our population, or in human history. And now, a new Pew report announces that we are keeping even nonviolent inmates behind bars for increasingly longer terms.
Not only do we imprison outpacing every other country in the world, we create an entire class of citizens who have a difficult, if not impossible time, finding work and/or a place to live by labeling them as felons or placing them on a publicly available draconian sex offender registry. More than 2 million people in the United States are behind bars. In Texas, 1 in 25 is in jail, prison or under court-mandated supervision. Another 700,000 people in this country are labeled as sex offenders whether there crime was a single incident or they are repeat offenders.
Criminalizing human behavior like never before, our judges are required by law to mete out increasingly punitive, long sentences, even for children. Even after inmates are released, they remain under the heavy-handed and pricey control of the criminal justice system for years or for life, often legally barred from voting, receiving public housing, food stamps or student loans. Forced to “check the box” on job applications that they are convicted criminals, even those who have had simple convictions like marijuana possession are often legally discriminated against by employers. The problem, in a nutshell, is that most people don’t care and the voices for those labeled for life as felons are drowned out by politically popular rants about being tough on crime.
In the United States, one man out of eighteen is incarcerated or on probation or parole, and more are locked up every day. We are the last developed country on the planet to lock up juveniles, overwhelmingly boys, for life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were minors. (Though the Supreme Court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors in June, judges may still impose the sentence as a discretionary matter.) Here’s one stark way to understand our new normal of mass incarceration: If we wanted to return to 1970s level of incarceration, we’d have to release four out of five people behind bars today.
Nonviolent offenders are 60% of our prison population. Releasing half of them would free up nearly $17 billion per year for schools or other worthy programs, with no appreciable effect on the crime rate. In fact, many studies conclude that mass incarceration is crimogenic, i.e., locking up people for minor offenses increases crime because they become hardened behind bars. Since few prisons offer therapy or vocational programs and children left behind in fatherless homes are more likely to grow up to become offenders themselves, the problem just gets worse. But we cannot keep going down the road of locking up more people for longer amounts of time. According to Pew, prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody, or 36% longer, than offenders released in 1990. Annually we now spend $68 billion and growing on local, state and federal corrections.
The American public strongly supports reducing time served for nonviolent offenders. But candidates appear afraid to touch this touchy third rail issue, for fear they appear less than “tough on crime,” especially in Texas where we have 118 prisons and one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Texas legislators are faced with a daunting task of staffing and paying for the nations largest prison system. In the 1990′s, Texas went on a prison building boon while creating more felony class crimes than any state in the country. The employment boom created by the Eagle Ford Shale appears to be draining jobs from the state prison system.
Two South Texas prisons are reporting major staffing shortages that are caused in part by people leaving to work in oil industry related jobs. At the McConnell unit in Beeville there are currently 213 vacancies, leaving only 310 staff on site right now. The Connally unit in Karnes County has been hit harder. Prison officials had to move inmates out of four dorms to other prisons because of staffing shortages. 218 vacancies are reported at that unit. There are still just over 300 full-time employees working at the unit. Officials say they’ve shifted inmates to other facilities to maintain the proper ratio of inmates to prisoners. There are 376 beds now empty at the unit. As a result of staffing shortages, the state prison system is doubling the recruitment bonus to $3,000 for correctional officers who agree to work at one of the seven prisons in need of personnel.
CNN contributed to this OP/ED piece.