Home of the Brave, Land of the Incarcerated.

by Steve Miller

Sometime in the near future, President Obama is expected to issue executive orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses. Once this has been done, he will have commuted more sentences in a single action than any president has in nearly half a century.

I am not a progressive Democrat but I agree completely with what he’s doing. We should get rid of long sentences and mandatory minimums – especially for nonviolent drug offenses.

prisonThe United States has less than five percent of the world’s population yet we have twenty-four percent of the world’s prison population. According to the Department of Justice, over seven million people were are in prison, on probation, or on parole. In Arizona, over one percent of the adult male population is locked up.

The result of the war on drugs in particular has been explosive growth in our prisons. It has accomplished nothing but to generate a whole plethora of social problems when inmates, who are ill-equipped to deal with society after long periods of incarceration, are finally released.

It’s no secret that there’s a vicious cycle of poverty, drug abuse, petty crime, and incarceration. The way our system works now by simply locking offenders up for long periods of time, it actually exacerbates the problem rather than diminish it.

Too many people go to prison for far too long, and for no good reason. While the enforcement of criminal statutes is necessary, it’s not possible to simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. Our effort would be better directed at alternatives like drug treatment and community service. The side effect would be that building a strong infrastructure in these areas would also prevent prosecution by providing intervention before issues became a law enforcement issue. Yes, people do walk willingly into rehab.

prison 2Another contributing factor is mandatory minimum sentences, which have caused explosive growth in prison populations. It’s a popular conservative notion to “throw away the key” but doing so is a short-sighted and narrow-minded approach. While sentencing guidelines are necessary to ensure consistency and fairness, judges need to have discretion so that mitigating circumstances and individual situations can be taken into consideration.

Laws like California’s three strikes law sound good in a campaign speech, especially when you’re talking about violent career criminals for whom there is little chance of rehabilitation. In actuality, they are impractical. The result of this law is that California is under federal court order to drastically reduce its prison population to eliminate overcrowding.

Also adding to the lack of fairness in our criminal justice system is the plea agreement. One side says that the offender got off easy by signing up for a deal. Truth is, many people who shouldn’t be serving time at all are coerced into signing a plea deal under the threat of long mandatory minimum sentences if convicted at trial.

Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, police are not allowed to trick or beat confessions out of suspects. Threatening someone with a long sentence can be just as coercive — and just as wrong. A plea deal should be an avenue for a guilty suspect to own up to his offense and save the government the expense of a trial. In exchange, he should get an agreed upon advantage at sentencing.  That isn’t the way it works today.

It’s one thing to impose a fair sentence for a crime committee. It’s something altogether different to decimate someone’s life for a mistake. Each case needs to be evaluated, prosecuted, and sentenced on its own merits.

Perhaps the most significant threat to fairness in our criminal justice system is private prisons. Most citizens would be surprised to know how many state prisons are run by private corporations instead of the state government.

In the past 25 years, he two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America have funneled more than ten million dollars to political candidates have spent over two times that much on lobbying efforts. The industry now brings over three billion dollars in annual revenue.

While some would say that privatizing anything is more efficient than having the government-run it, there are two areas where I disagree: Military and criminal justice. Those need to be sacred trusts administered by the government.

If the goal is to decrease the number of people we lock up and alleviate the accompanying social consequences, having an entire industry whose interest is keeping more people behind bars for longer periods of time doesn’t fit well with that goal.

Here is an excerpt from last year’s Corrections Corporation of America annual report:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. … Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior.

This statement is contrary to what should be a rehabilitative mission of the our criminal justice system.

Private prison contracts often require the state to keep the facilities full, giving the state more incentive to send more people into the prison system. After all, you can’t make money off of empty rooms. Here in Arizona, three private prisons are operating with a 100 percent occupancy guarantee. Many private prison contracts mandate that states maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate. If they don’t, taxpayers end up paying for empty beds.

The result is that if law enforcement does a good job of preventing crime, there is a cost on the back-end from paying for empty prison beds. Something’s seriously wrong with that picture.

The fact that the Supreme Court sees nothing wrong with limitless commercial contributions to political campaigns means that this problem isn’t going away soon. Private prison companies are among the biggest contributors.

The things that one should consider as a way to return America to being the land of the free are:

  • Review all sentencing guidelines, particularly non-violent drug offences.
  • Stop prosecutorial coercion in plea deals.
  • Eliminate private prisons.
  • Deal with drugs at the source – predominately the border.
  • Strengthen the border so that there is less incarceration from illegal immigration.

This is a country whose core value is freedom. It’s about time we returned ourselves to that concept rather than locking people up to make us feel safe.

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