A Message from the Director
Planning for Decarceration
By Nora Callahan
Our President needs a pragmatic decarceration plan, and a good one was written and published by sentencing expert Michael Tonry* in 1995:
"Stop imprisoning most user-dealers and most property offenders. Revise sentencing standards and guidelines to prescribe prison sentences for violent offenses at 1980 levels. Rescind mandatory penalty laws retroactively. Create special parole boards with the power to consider the release of every prisoner who is over age fifty and has served at least five years and every prisoner who has served ten years or more. The only valid general criterion for denying release would be that, on actuarial grounds, the offender presents an unacceptable risk of future violent criminality. Denying release might also be justified for especially notorious offenders like political assassins and serial murderers.
"What would be done with the diverted offenders? For some, nothing. Most former prisoners over age thirty-five present little threat of violence or other serious offending. The best thing to do is to let many of those released early get on with their lives. For current offenders, depending on the gravity of their crimes, confinement or community penalties are the answer. Those confined should receive sentences scaled down at least by half from current levels of time served to 1980 levels and never more than is commensurate with the relative severity of their offenses. Most, however, should be sentenced to community penalties like intensive supervision probation, community service, house arrest, daytime or nighttime confinement, and financial penalties coupled when appropriate with compulsory participation in treatment programs. When it is feasible, restitution or community service should be routinely ordered." -- Malign Neglect, by Michael Tonry.
A good Decarceration Plan demands a good reentry plan, and the Second Chance Act of 2008 is full of easily expandable programs that could lend to decarceration goals. Having one without the other is pointless. Sentencing and reentry reform must be married to a decarceration plan, and those plans abound, ready for administrative and congressional review.
With unemployment rates climbing sharply within a crumbling US economy in 2009 we have a President on record supporting Prisons-to-Work programs. A marriage of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps with Tonry's 1995 Decarceration Plan could be the match to light a prairie fire of change. Calling it the Green Revolution, how can millions of people be left behind living and working in 'gray' prisons?
Cutting to the quick of ponderous issues, President Obama needs a Decarceration Plan because it's a disgrace that the United States is World's Leading Jailer. And while we might collectively as a nation be giving approval to punish rashly and harshly, the rest of the world is horrified. Disgraced is one thing. Discredited and therefore disempowered? That is another matter.
How can the President criticize human rights abuse in and outside of prisons abroad while retaining title as world's leading jailer? President Roosevelt found himself in a similar situation at the end of the 1930's. While many citizens of this country were content with leaving some races of people as second class citizens with restrictions on civil rights -- other countries saw it as cruel and barbaric.
Roosevelt had to remove oppressive restraints on the once-freed slaves in the South before he could exert global leadership at the end of the 1930's. If he had not corrected at least some glaring human rights abuses, his Attorney General would not have been able to assert that we are a country with "the values of a government based on a belief in the dignity and rights of man." **
Growing numbers of world leaders and the people who put them in office are rejecting the notion that to control illicit drugs means people have to live with constant escalations of police and citizen violence. Poor countries trying to wage a US-style drug war find a 25-cent bullet a lot cheaper than a 15-year mandatory minimum drug sentence. To uphold human rights globally, we must first respect human life here and abroad.
On February 9, 2009 a panel of three federal judges ruled in a 10-page decision that overcrowded California prisons are the cause of inadequate healthcare for prisoners. As remedy, the judges have ordered the State to release as many as 57,000 people, roughly one-third of current population. The California guards' union put the pressure on, and the state immediately announced it would appeal the decision, though for now the federal rationale and ruling stand.
According to LA Times writer Michael Rothfeld about the judges ruling, "If the state is ordered to reduce the prison population, it would likely be able to do so over two or three years, so it would not have to release large numbers of inmates at once. Some methods of cutting the population include limiting new admissions, changing policies so parole violators return to prison less frequently, and giving prisoners more time off of their sentences for good behavior and rehabilitation efforts." Annual savings from this decarceration plan, say judges, amounts to more than $900 million.
Decarceration and Growing Unemployment
I'm just young enough to have no personal recollections of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but have a personal connection to his programs and legacy. Most of my cousins' fathers were in the Civillian Conservation Corps, meeting my aunts when CCC camps sprung up along Idaho's remote Salmon River to build a road. My grandfather taught plenty of men from the city how to hunt and fish in the 30's. Born on the Salmon, he was a miner raising a family there when the "CCC boys" came down-river. I now enjoy forests and renewable energy we wouldn't have unless the CCC teams hadn't come this way.
Today, a Green Corps would likely be more about urban than rural work. President Barack Obama has promised green projects, and projects for a green future include developing, manufacturing and infrastructure for sustainable renewable energy in declining need. Money now spent supporting wasteful and endless incarceration practices could be put immediately 'into green' infrastructure.
Re-employing prison guards in public programs as administrators and Corps leaders would create new opportunities for civil servants who long for meaningful work. Public works programs should also employ veterans having problems finding work, or living outside institutional boundaries. Too many veterans are not able to convert war service into civilian work. Others can't adjust from war to the competitiveness of the job market without assistance, many becoming homeless or confined in prison as a result of a soldier's inability to quickly transition to civilian life.
We hear more and more about diversion programs and drug courts and less and less about what will be put in place of the 'prison pipeline.' Divert unemployed people who use or deal drugs to what? If drug users need meaningful work and a stable life to stay clean and legal, we must create skills-building jobs coupled with opportunities for people and families to relocate with confidence, knowing they won't become another community's problem.
Sustainable, renewable public projects such as retrofitting public buildings for improved energy efficiency is labor intensive. Examples are endless and abound in the Ameri-Corps and other small public works programs operating now. Rapid expansion of public service in the next few years, with the inclusion of nonviolent federal prisoners, seems an uncomplicated, common solution to the unemployment and carceral crisis, a sensible part of a pragmatic decarceration plan.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons is over-crowded at roughly the same rates as California's prison system, and according to Harley Lappin, the chief officer of FBoP, understaffing, costs of health care, employee-to-prisoner ratios and budget shortfalls are currently at emergency levels in the federal system. ***
The US Ninth Circuit Court Judges' rationale could become the national decarceration goal, and need not be more complicated than that.
* Professor Michael Tonry, an internationally recognized authority on criminology, teaches criminal law at the University of Minnesota, and is the author of scores of books and hundreds of articles on criminal justice and prison policies. For more info, visit www.law.umn.edu/facultyprofiles/tonrym.html
** Slavery by Another Name, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon
*** US Congress: Hearing On The Fiscal Year 2009 Budget Request For The Bureau Of Prisons, The U.S. Marshal Service, And The Office Of The Federal Detention Trustee, July 2008. Full transcript of Lappin's testimony is available at www.november.org