Thursday, December 09, 2010

American Prospect: Special Report on Mass Incarceration

American Prospect magazine has just published a special report on "Mass Incarceration."

Mark Kleiman writes that African-Americans and the poor suffer from both too much punishment, and not enough effective crime control. He argues, as he does in his book, When Brute Force Fails, that well-designed community control programs work. That means that there must be sanctions for breaking the rules quickly imposed. He argues that effective crime control involves finding a tipping point in changing the behavior of potential offenders by concentrating the sanctions. Instead of random punishment, people will conform if they know they will be punished.

An example of this is the behavior around speed cameras. I drive by a half dozen or so locations in a typical week where there are speed cameras. Everyone slows down, knowing that there, at least, there is a sanction for speeding. Typically these are near schools. However, when drivers know that speeding enforcement is random, as it is on most highways, the speed limit is practically nonexistent. Mark is a proponent of Operation HOPE, a probation enforcement program in Hawai'i, pioneered by Judge Steven Alm. (As a matter of prideful disclosure, CJPF helped finance the peer review of Mark's book.)

Michelle Alexander's outstanding article is a modification of a Constitution Day speech about the role of mass incarceration in keeping people of color, primarily African-Americans in second class status in the United States. Her speech introduces her outstanding new book, The New Jim Crow. The primary driver of mass incarceration is our prohibition drug policy, and she argues that anyone concerned with racial justice now, must be working to end the "war on drugs."

Vanessa Gregory writes about the failings of the indigent defense system in America. Her critique is right on. She notes the value of training for the young attorneys who work as public defenders. I served as public defender for three years before I moved to Washington, D.C. Attending the NORML Legal Committee continuing legal education programs in 1976, 1977, and 1978 were invaluable.

Kara Gotsch, from The Sentencing Project, argues that there is an emerging bipartisan movement for less severe sentencing.

Journalist Sasha Abramsky writes the now familiar story of "problem solving courts," typified by drug court, which data shows are effective in changing behavior. He is careful to relate the criticisms of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers that such courts are often cavalier in their lack of consideration of the the constitutional rights of accused persons. Perhaps what is ultimately most disturbing is the very small number of defendants who benefit compared to the large population of drug dependent or otherwise law-breaking that could benefit from treatment, counseling, job training, etc.

Steven Hawkins from the NAACP writes with great power about the enormous impact on public education due to the increased expenditures on prisons. In 2008-2009, for example, in two-thirds of the states, there was more spent on corrections and less spent on education than the year before.

He tells how in Philadelphia, PA in 2009 as the school system struggled to deal with a $147 million shortfall, the taxpayers were spending $290 million to keep the young people from 11 Philadelphia neighborhoods in prison.

As you think about how your tax dollars are going to be spent this year, and how services important to you are likely to be cut -- from ambulances, to public schools, to parks, to pot hole repair -- simply consider how much money is being wasted in old-fashioned criminal justice programs. Don't let your public officials get way with saying, "We are going to have cut everything, but of course, not public safety." Public safety is a field of public service that is just as incompetently and inefficiently managed as any other -- if not more so!

Thank you, American Prospect, for a stimulating special report.

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