Although many Americans have lost their life savings, their homes and their jobs, the economic recession has had a beneficial effect for some of the most down and out members of our society: convicts. No, they aren’t scooping up securities and bonds from the bargain aisle, and no, they won’t be getting plasma T.V.’s paid for by the recent stimulus package. Their reward is more valuable to them than even $787 billion — freedom.
Facing a budget deficit of $42 billion over the next 17 months, a three judge panel in California has ordered the state to reduce its overcrowded prison population by as many as 55,000 prisoners (approx. 1/3 of the more than 150,000 prisoners in California). Although many non-violent offenders will be released out of financial necessity, their early exoneration raises the question: Why are these prisoners locked up in the first place? Shouldn’t criminals be incarcerated out of social necessity, rather than economic luxury? The following anecdotal policies exemplify what is wrong with a system that locks up too many Americans unnecessarily.
The 100-to-1 Ratio
The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, and about 25 percent of the world’s jailed community. With a prison population of 2.3 million people, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Are we a nation of ne’er-do-wells, thieves and wife-beaters, maniacs and murderers?
Unsurprisingly, many scholars and criminologists attribute the rise in men and women behind bars to our country’s zealous war on drugs. Despite a decline in violent crime over the past two decades, our prison population has quadrupled since the war on drugs began in the 1980s. This exponential growth is largely due to the mandatory minimum sentences for possession, as well as policies like the “100-to-1” ratio.
From 1988 to 2007, possession of five grams — that’s about five sugar packets worth — of crack cocaine (predominately used by poor African Americans) was punishable by five years in jail — the same punishment as 500 grams of powder cocaine (more commonly used by wealthy white suburban teens). In 2005, states spent over $17 million per day to incarcerate drug users, or more than $6 billion for the year. Facing another budget crisis, the Governator will have to choose between cuts in education, government jobs and social welfare programs or keeping recreational drug users behind bars.
Three Strikes, You’re Out
The quirks of California’s justice system don’t end with drug violations. Kevin Webber was sentenced to 26 years to life for stealing four chocolate chip cookies. Gary Ewing received the same punishment for shoplifting golf clubs. What do these two men have in common? They both committed two prior felonies and under California’s cruel-but-catchy three strikes law. The fact that this law applies to non-violent felonies boggles my mind. This law is widely regarded in the legal world as a violation of the eighth amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment; three strikes law gives the saying, “Don’t get caught with your hand in cookie jar,” a totally new meaning.
Kids on the Chain Gang
Two corrupt judges in Pennsylvania ruined the lives of thousands of children for personal financial gain. 14-year-old Bernadine Wallace was sent to a wilderness detention camp after pleading guilty to charges of making “terrorist threats.” Bernadine’s real crime was less than serious — she got into a heated argument on MySpace. Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan sent hundreds of juvenile offenders to expensive and privately run detention facilities in exchange for over $2.6 million in kickbacks from the for-profit youth prisons. In addition to the obvious lack of judicial oversight, this case has drawn attention to the severity of youth sentencing for minor offenses.
The Draconian Laws of our Puritan Yesteryear
Many of our statutes related to sex and indecency reflect our prude and proper Puritan past. Until 1998, oral sex between any two adults (including married couples) was illegal and punishable by up to 20 years in jail in the state of Georgia. Although this law was overturned more than a decade ago, it took another 10 years for a less visible law to be revised.
Genarlow Wilson was charged and convicted for aggravated child molestation for engaging in oral sex with a 15-year-old woman when he was 17-years-old. The term “aggravated” specifies the crime involved oral sex; had he had intercourse with the woman, he would have been charged with a misdemeanor resulting in a maximum of 12 months jail and no sex offender status. But because of Georgians strong aversion to third base, Wilson received the mandatory 10-year jail sentence in addition to sex offender status. After the intervention of several high profile activists including ex-President Jimmy Carter, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to hear Wilson’s case. The Court found Genarlow’s punishment excessive and therefore cruel and unusual, but stopped short of declaring the law unconstitutional.
Our system of justice is intended to provide rehabilitation, set a standard of deterrence and deliver retribution to those who wrong others and are threats to society’s general well being. It is irresponsible, illogical and immoral to jail citizens whose crimes are so inconsequential that their sentences are commuted due to budget deficits. The government should only revoke a citizen’s freedom and liberty as a last resort for egregious crimes. America’s 51.8 percent recidivism rate speaks for itself — our prison system fails to rehabilitate and often further encourages criminal behavior. State legislatures should reevaluate the war on drugs and redirect their efforts to the truly dangerous cartels and drug producers at home and abroad. It took a financial meltdown to remind us that it isn’t worth billions of dollars (nor any amount of money) to lock up potheads and sexually active teenagers. Hopefully, as California goes, so does the nation.