Mass Incarceration. The New Jim Crow. The War on Drugs. Thanks to Professor Michelle Alexander these phrases are now intimately linked in the minds of social justice advocates and faith leaders as we begin a critical struggle for fairness, justice and human rights in the criminal courts, police precincts and prisons of America. The Next Movement is convinced that America can do better, and that the majority of Americans would want us to do better, if they knew the truth. The truth about systemic incarceration, structural second class status, completely uneven law enforcement practices, oppressive and selectively enforced laws that is filling the prisons of America.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Prioritizing Prison Reform

In an Op-Ed this morning in the Nation of Change webzine, Christopher Petrella put forth ten tactics for reducing prison populations:
  1. Replace mandatory sentencing laws with more flexible and individualized sentencing guidelines.
  2. Strategically reduce “three-strikes” laws for non-violent offenders.
  3. Relax Truth-in-Sentencing thresholds 
  4. Organize against prison gerrymandering to ensure that low-income communities—and particularly communities of color—receive a fair portion of federal aid. 
  5. Make full employment a domestic policy goal.
  6. Eliminate the use of for-profit, private prison companies.
  7. Fund prison education programs and incentivize inmate participation. 
  8. Provide incentives for employers to hire “ex-convicts.”
  9. Suspend “Operation Streamline.”
  10. Support community policing efforts.

As I reviewed the list, I found myself nodding in agreement. Most are fairly straight forward (and at any rate, you can refer to the original article for more details). A couple are not as commonly discussed. Number 4 addresses the fact that, as hard as it is to imagine, communities that house prisons get to claim the inmates as “residents” and as a result get increased tax dollars allocated to them, while reducing the tax dollars to the often distressed communities from which they come. And, number 9, “Operation Streamline,” is talking about the huge numbers of people that are being held in detention as a result of questionable immigration status.
Dr. Patricia Simples and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle
at The Next Movement forum/panel discussion
Treating Drug Abuse as a Public Health Issue, Not a Crime

While all of these are ideas that are easy for those with a prison reform mind to agree with, the elephant in the room is missing.

As recently as 2009 there were 1.7 million people in prison, jail, or on probation or parole for drug offenses. Currently there are over 500,000 people in prison for drug offenses, 80% of which are for use and possession. In addition, many of the other crimes theft, prostitution, robbery, etc. – are related to drug habits. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 crimes were committed to obtain money for drugs, according to a Bureau of Justice study from 2004 . . . that would mean another 400,000 inmates. Yet, Mr. Petrella does not include ending the War on Drugs among his tactical solutions.

Implementing some of the “tweaks” Mr. Petrella outlines can reduce the escalation in prison populations, but we will never achieve the reductions that are necessary, certainly not a humane and moral resolution, without addressing the fallacy of the Drug War.

Ending the epidemic of mass incarceration simply cannot be achieved if we ignore the drug policy issue. Yes, we should support his shopping list of reforms, but if we don’t begin to treat drug abuse as the medical condition that it is, we will continue to waste human potential, debilitate families and cripple our communities.

Daryle Brown

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