The economic downturn sweeping over the country and undermining states' economies may accomplish something advocates of prison reform have been seeking for years—a significant reduction in America's addiction to building more prisons as the end-all answer to reducing crime.
For more than two decades states have been on a spending spree of prison construction, fueled by get-tough crime policies that increased the nation's total inmate population by 500 percent, to more than 2 million inmates since the early 1970s. It now costs $30 billion a year to operate all of America's local jails and state and federal prisons.
These dollar outlays have put a significant financial strain on states' capacity to provide other services—such as funding for public higher education.
That these new prisons were almost always located in rural communities whose economic bases were fast disappearing made that approach even more politically popular. The salaries of guards account for roughly 80 percent of the costs of maintaining prisons.
But the prison boom never made common sense, financially or socially, a truth now becoming more and more evident.
According to a January 21 news story in the New York Times, budget deficits are forcing many states to at least begin to re-think their approach to incarceration.
Some states are considering transferring some inmates from some prisons so that they can close them. Recently Michigan, Ohio and Illinois have each closed a prison and laid off some correctional guards. Washington State's governor has proposed reducing sentences for those who commit nonviolent drug offenses and crimes and making it easier for inmates to gain early release in order to reduce the state's inmate population.
California may even have a proposal on the November ballot to reduce the number of criminals subject to its draconian three-strikes sentencing law, which applies even to those convicted of nonviolent offenses. Currently, 6,700 inmates in California are serving sentences of 25 years to life because of the law.
Steven Ickes, an official of the Oregon Department of Corrections, told the Times, "My sense is that budget problems are making people ask fundamental questions about whether we can afford to keep on doing what we've been doing. We're going to have to make tough choices about prisons versus schools, and about getting a better investment return on how we run our prisons so we don't have so many prisoners reoffending and being sent back."
In the old days, before the get-tough posturing overwhelmed common sense, it was understood that incarceration had to have a dual purpose if it was to provide the greatest benefit to society: It has to be a proper instrument of punishment for those who committed crimes. But it also had to give offenders a chance to go straight, to rehabilitate themselves.
But that latter idea, which was meant to protect society by reducing the number of repeat offenders, was buried under a deluge of "lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key' rhetoric. That rhetoric conveniently ignored the fact that most inmates cannot be locked up forever.
So, this year, as a recent, gripping Time Magazine article about an ex-offender trying to go straight pointed out, more than 630,000 people will be released from prison this year—the largest prison exodus, as the magazine put it, in history.
Because of the virtual complete lack of educational and job-training programs in our prisons, most of these inmates will come back to society as they left it: with only the most minimal educational credentials, if any, and few marketable skills.
In the best of circumstances, ex-offenders face daunting prospects of finding work even at the bottom of the occupational ladder. Numerous studies have pegged their "unemployable" rate at higher than 60 percent; the large majority who have found legitimate work have done so in low-paying "off-the-books" jobs
Now, in these economically difficult times, what can we expect the job prospects for these ex-offenders will be? You don't have to be an expert on either the criminal-justice system or the economy to say: not good at all.
Furthermore, there is, of course, an indisputable racial facet to this since of the of the 1.3 million inmates in federal and state prisons, 428,000 are black men 20 to 29 years old, and a significant proportion of those inmates scheduled for release this year will be black and Hispanic.
All of this alarming information points to one compelling conclusion. America's prison system needs a massive new effort at rehabilitating inmates. We must stop pretending that merely locking people up is the answer. We must give inmates the education and the job skills that would give them a real chance to go straight once they're released.
This is a mammoth task—but it must be undertaken if American society is to defuse the human time bomb beneath it and reclaim a significant part of its citizens.
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