U.S. taxpayers spend at least $60 billion a year on a growing body of state and federal prisons, county jails and local lockups. With jail and prison populations that have increased nearly eightfold over the past 35 years, the United States has become the world's leading jailer.
More than one in every 100 U.S. adults is locked up -- and 5 million more are on probation or parole. At any given time, one in 32 adults is under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
Tough-on-crime policies, not increases in crime, are mostly responsible. Mandatory drug sentences, three-strike and so-called truth-in-sentencing laws, as well as high recidivism rates, have created our Incarceration Nation. Even so, violent crime rates are higher than when the nation's prison building boom started more than three decades ago.
It's time to reverse failed sentencing policies, restore certain social and legal rights for ex-felons, and slow the revolving doors of the penal system with better re-entry, education and training programs. Fully funding the Second Chance Act, which provides money for state and federal re-entry programs, would keep more ex-inmates out of prison.
Criminal justice reforms are critical to the health of the nation's cities, and they must become part of the next president's urban agenda. Most of the more than 600,000 people a year leaving U.S. prisons and jails return to disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. They go home poorly educated, lacking job skills, and socially and legally disabled by felony records.
Going to prison has become a norm in certain big-city neighborhoods, even a rite of passage. While mass incarceration has aimed to reduce crime, it has actually increased it by breaking up social networks and removing financial and emotional support from families and communities. Nearly half of the 2.3 million adults locked up are African Americans, who make up less than 13% of the U.S. population. A stunning one in nine black males between the ages of 20-34 is behind bars.
Felony convictions, whether or not they carried prison sentences, attach lifetime penalities to tens of millions of Americans. Roughly 1.8 million people in Michigan, for example, have criminal records, or nearly one in four adults. Most are felony offenders, with all that entails for future prospects. These staggering statistics hold true for the nation as a whole, with more than 55 million people with criminal records.
Kansas Sets an Example
Nationwide, nearly two of three offenders who get out of prison go back. Reducing recidivism is one of the best, and least controversial, ways to lower the prison population. With bipartisan support, many states are developing programs to help released inmates find jobs, housing and treatment. Such efforts have helped Kansas become one of the few states to lower prison populations, from a high of 9,181 in 2004 to 8,671 today.
Low-risk offenders in Kansas who violate parole conditions are no longer automatically sent back to prison. Instead, many are supervised and assisted in the community at a fraction of the cost.
Carlis Rogers, 23, was released in December, after serving 2 1/2 years on a drug possession charge. During a traffic stop in January, a police officer discovered a small amount of cocaine in the glove compartment of a car he was driving but didn't own. Rogers said he didn't know the drugs were there, but the incident would have, five years ago, resulted in revocation.
Instead, Rogers was assigned in February to a day reporting center in Wichita, one of two such programs in Kansas run under contract by Colorado-based BI Inc. The centers, supervising 140 offenders at a time, are part of a successful effort by the Kansas Department of Corrections to keep low-risk offenders in the community, despite parole violations.
Parolees like Rogers are assigned to the reporting centers for six to nine months. The intense supervision includes curfews, electronic GPS monitoring, mandatory reporting three to six days a week, random drug tests, community service projects, group therapy sessions, and help with substance abuse, mental health and employment problems. Most offenders also work or attend school full-time.
"If you come into this with an open mind, you can really get something out of it," Rogers said after a group session on critical thinking.
The center helped Rogers get enrolled in a local community college and line up financial aid. He's taking a 12-week aero structure technician course in sheet metal work. After he earns a certificate this month, he'll make about $15 an hour in Wichita's thriving aircraft industry.
Even more important, Rogers is learning to think about his decisions. "I can choose to do something to go back to prison or not," he said.
New Ways of Thinking
In Kansas, more offenders are choosing to stay out of prison.
Five years ago, an average of 203 parolees were sent back to prison each month. By last year, the number dropped to 103 a month -- and the improvement was not due to lax enforcement. The number of absconders and parolees with convictions for new crimes has also dropped. "People posing significant risk to the community still go back to prison," said Kent Sisson, a regional parole director. "But we think that, historically, a lot of folks we sent back to prison weren't posing that kind of risk."
Kansas also started re-entry programs two years ago that helped reduce recidivism from 60% to less than 45%. The number of parolees going back to prison for parole violations has dropped from 3,100 in 2000 to less than 1,300 last year.
Twelve to 18 months before they're released, high-risk inmates meet with employers, housing providers, social service agencies and medical providers. They also meet with cognitive specialists that emphasize personal responsibility and self-control.
The aim is to help inmates on their way out develop new ways of thinking, as well as line up housing, social services, education and jobs.
Kansas has hired a business developer to inform employers about the advantages of hiring ex-offenders, including federal tax credits. It also has drug and alcohol specialists who help assess substance abuse problems and coordinate community treatment, and a housing specialist to work with landlords who might not otherwise rent to parolees. Too often, parolees have been virtually forced to return to housing that puts them near criminal activity.
All parole officers are now trained in so-called motivational interviewing techniques that help them get inmates to think through problems, develop goals and make better choices. A few parole officers derisively called the change "hug a thug," but most understand that the new approach works.
The department has set up accountability panels made up of corrections staff and community members, including ex-inmates, who meet with offenders upon release and during parole. The panel provides tough talk, when needed, but also celebrates successes.
"That's something corrections isn't known for," said Sally Frey, a Kansas re-entry director. "But as human beings, we're motivated more by reward than punishment."
Private Industry Helps
Private industry programs in Kansas also better prepare inmates for freedom, easing budget problems that would otherwise increase idleness and jeopardize vocational programs in the state's eight prisons, said Rodney Crawford, director of Kansas Correctional Industries.
Nearly 30 companies employ more than 800 inmates -- 530 of them in leased shops and factories inside prisons. Most inmates in private industry programs make prevailing wages of up to $12 an hour, and all make at least the federal minimum wage of $5.85 an hour. That compares to other prison jobs that pay as little as 40 cents a day, and no more than 60 cents an hour.
Industry jobs inside Kansas prisons include embroidering sportswear, cut-and-sew leather products and cabinet manufacturing.
The state deducts 25% of the wages for room and board and 5% for restitution. Another 10% is set aside for a mandatory savings account. Inmates often leave prison with more than $10,000, which enables them to secure housing and get a solid start.
For some inmates, private industry jobs start careers.
Scott Whiteman, now 36, started working as a welder at Henke Manufacturing in Leavenworth eight years ago as a minimum-security inmate, making snow removal equipment for minimum wage.
When he finished a seven-year stretch for aggravated robbery in 2003, Whiteman continued working at Henke as a welder, roughly doubling his pay. He was recently promoted to supervisor over 20 welders, doubling his pay again.
"Working and keeping up your child support make you feel responsible," he said. "When you get out, you want to keep that feeling. The only way to do it is to keep working."
For other offenders like Carl Mitchell, 41, with long prison sentences in front of them, working provides a way to pay for college courses, support families and sharpen job skills. Convicted of rape, Mitchell might not get out before 2029.
"This is more like a normal life and it motivates you to be responsible," said Mitchell, who earns $6.12 an hour as a finisher in a garment embroidery and print screen shop run by Impact Design Inc. The company employs more than 300 inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility.
Tight Budgets Force Solutions
Mass incarceration has created economic and human costs the nation can no longer afford. Michigan spends $2 billion a year on corrections, or 20% of its general fund. It is one of four states spending more on corrections than higher education.
Community supervision and treatment, allowing offenders to continue to support their families, work best for many low-risk and drug offenders and cost a fraction of the $30,000 a year each prison inmate costs. Health care costs for some inmates can total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Severely sick and dying inmates who pose no risk should be released.
Mandatory sentencing policies, including three strikes laws, have imposed unreasonably harsh sentences on many nonviolent offenders and ought to be repealed, as should disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. States and cities must remove some of the barriers to employment, housing and education faced by the tens of millions of people with felony convictions. The good news is that budget pressures are forcing other states, including Michigan, to take steps to control their prison populations.
Unacceptably high incarceration rates tear at the nation's social fabric and divert money from education, health care, transportation and other needs. It's time to build a more rational, cost-effective and humane criminal justice system.
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