Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Bars Sinister

Americans are spending ourselves into oblivion. We have obviously ignored former Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower’s 1961 speech as he departed the presidency. “The only general to be elected president in the 20th century, he famously warned the nation about the potentially corrupting influence of the ‘military-industrial complex.’” Wikipedia. Yet today, we get dragged into most major conflicts, one way or another, spend about 41% of the global military budget, and have not won a major conflict since World War II. A vast number of Congressional districts house component manufacturers of military arms and equipment or military bases, making voting for big military costs a local economic issue that gives the big arms-makers a huge advantage to have their way with taxpayer dollars.
We are equally callous in our wanton commitment to allowing pretty free access to guns while dealing with the results by having the highest incarceration rates, some of the longest sentences, on earth. We have only 5% of the earth’s population, but we imprison 25% of the world’s criminal inmates. 2.2 million souls, most of whom are permanently cut out of mainstream earning power regardless of their having “paid their debt” to society. 200,000 of those prisoners are in the federal system, representing a doubling from their numbers two decades ago. “In 2012, about 1 in every 35 adults in the United States, or 2.9 percent of adult residents, was on probation or parole or incarcerated in prison or jail…”, April 1, 2014.
Even as most states were able to lower their violent crime rates in recent years, we still house an increasing number of criminals. Although the Obama administration has set about commuting sentences for a large number of non-violent drug offenders held in federal prisons, this pattern of release is a fraction of an eye-drop of the total prison population. Half of those serving federal sentences are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Without a parole system, the federal system tends to keep inmates in prison much longer than state systems. But too many criminal justice practices still retain the clearly outmoded “three strikes” and “truth in sentencing” statutes, which are slowly being repealed (just not fast enough).
The costs of creating a permanent class of those excluded from participating in the mainstream economy by virtue of a criminal record, forcing many to resort to criminal earnings to survive, cutting out delinquent fathers from their families and leaving families to rot as breadwinners are sent away are massive. These practices foment recidivism and create “schools for crime” by mixing non-violent inmates with violent criminal experts.
Time in prison not only means a loss of freedom, but it also means a loss of earnings, risks to the health and safety of the incarcerated, and prolonged absences from family that can strain marriages and increase behavioral problems in children. The probability that a family is in poverty increases by nearly 40 percent while a father is incarcerated.
“Economic hardship often continues after release: A criminal record creates substantial obstacles to employment that could increase with the amount of time served, and incarceration decreases earnings by 10 to 40 percent, compared with similar workers. The fact that so many states have rules (including unnecessary and unnecessarily inflexible occupational licensing restrictions), and companies have practices that make it harder to hire former prisoners compound the economic and human damage.” Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin,president of the American Action Forum and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, writing an Op-Ed for the April 21st New York Times.
But the hard costs of our criminal justice system, the sums funded directly by taxpayers, are equally staggering. “[More] more than $80 billion is spent annually on corrections, or over $600 per household. The annual cost of imprisoning one person averages approximately $30,000 for adults and $110,000 for juveniles, higher than the cost of a year of college. At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons budget grew 1,700 percent from 1980 to 2010 and now devours more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget.” Furman and Holz-Eakin. What’s worse, the system does not work; it does not deter (juveniles and younger offenders in particular), it does not correct and it most certainly does not provide the kind of protection of the general public that most people assume.
While we do need in incarcerate some, we simply have gone way beyond any justifiable limits to our sentencing practices. “Incarceration plays an important role in promoting public safety, and imposing prison sentences for criminal conduct has moral and practical dimensions. But the criminal justice system should be designed to ensure that the benefits of incarceration exceed the costs. Individuals incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes — 50 percent of the federal prison population — pose a low risk, and the costs of incarcerating these people outweigh the benefits. Similarly, since criminal behavior declines and costs increase with age, releasing older individuals who have already served lengthy sentences is also likely to yield net benefits.” Furman and Holtz-Eakin. We need to get these folks out of prison and find a way to avoid tainting their futures with alternative correctional paths, particularly for simple drug-crimes.
Following Reagan-era policies, mental hospitals were seriously reduced, leaving people with severe mental issues to make their way in the world, out on the streets and often finding their way into prisons that were and remain woefully under-prepared to tackle these mental health issues. We need to separate out those with serious mental illness and place them into more appropriate facilities. “[About] 20 percent of prison inmates have a serious mental illness, 30 to 60 percent have substance abuse problems and, when including broad-based mental illnesses, the percentages increase significantly. For example, 50 percent of males and 75 percent of female inmates in state prisons, and 75 percent of females and 63 percent of male inmates in jails, will experience a mental health problem requiring mental health services in any given year.”
We also love to incarcerate children. According to, we have 1.9 million kids incarcerated in any given year, the most of any developed country, 74.1% for non-violent offenses, 65% of these incarcerated minors never finish high school, the average cost of incarcerating a child is $88,000 (vs the cost of educating a child, $12,500 on average), the recidivism rate within 3 years is 59.6% with about 24% of Americans have at least one arrest by age 23. 33 states have no lower age limits for criminal convictions, and the ranks are overwhelming filled with black and brown kids. The mental illness statistics mirror those of adults. We love to destroy lives with one of the least effective criminal justice systems in the world.
Bottom line: we’ve been talking about this issue for way too long. It’s time to do a ground-up rebuild of our entire state and federal criminal justice system, focusing on reducing our total level of incarcerating criminals by 25% within five years and 50% within ten. We need to stop courts from automatically resorting to prison sentences as a matter of routine and examine a healthy set of alternative corrective measures. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue; it is a matter of our aggregate national priorities.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we need to apply an accountable cost-benefit program to a failed criminal justice system that we can no long afford.

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