Sarah van Gelder: Our prison system is bankrupting us


If there was any doubt about the broken state of our prison system, the news this week should put it to rest.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, made up of former presidents and other luminaries from the United States and abroad, concludes that the Drug War is an expensive failure. The California prison system—which the U.S. Supreme Court declared to be in violation of the 8th Amendment due to overcrowding and neglect—has yet to develop a plan to bring it into compliance with the court order.

Less well publicized, but also disturbing, is a letter from Tom Lutz in which he resigns from his post as department chair at the University of California Riverside. Lutz warns that the state is dismantling in just a few years a world-class system of higher education. Funding has shifted dramatically from educating California’s young to imprisoning them—not a way to build a strong country.

Meanwhile, massive state budget deficits are worsened by the expense of locking up more of our own citizens than any other country in the world.

Perhaps we’re finally ready for a reassessment. What might a more effective and rational system look like?

As we researched the summer issue of YES!, “Beyond Prisons,” we found a blossoming of creative alternatives to the punitive drug war and to the criminal justice system’s expensive punishment ethic.

People behind bars for drug possession make up the greatest share of the massive uptick in the prison population. The experts we talked to, including a former police chief and a medical doctor who specializes in addiction, called for an end to the war on drugs. Instead of punishing drug addicts—many of whom are victims of trauma—treatment, needle exchanges, and safe housing lessen addiction, disease, and the crimes caused by drug use.

Most of the 2.3 million now in prison will eventually be released. Education and job training are proven ways to reduce the number who reoffend and return to prison. Ex-offenders and ex-addicts can be the best mentors of those released from prison; the Delancey Street Project, for example, offers peer support and job-skills training in businesses run by ex-inmates and addicts, and their success record is impressive.

Traditional approaches to crime hold special promise. In New Zealand, instead of locking up young offenders, a council made up of family, community members, and crime victims holds them accountable for their crimes, and then gives them an opportunity to make restitution and be reintegrated into the community. This approach, which borrows from the Maori people, has become the norm in New Zealand, reducing to almost zero the number of young people locked up in expensive and violent detention facilities.

This “restorative justice” approach is spreading. Studies show crime victims who are involved in victim-offender mediation processes are less likely to experience long-term post-traumatic stress.

The involvement of the broader community is key to the success of restorative approaches. A welding instructor who volunteers to instruct inmates, a Girl Scout leader who brings girls to visit their imprisoned mothers, or a garden club that helps inmates start prison gardens all do their part to create vital links to the outside.

There are people we might agree should be locked up: psychopathic killers, rapists, and others who endanger their families or communities.

But most of those in prison are people with few resources who have committed nonviolent offenses—especially poor people, people of color, drug users, alcoholics, and the mentally challenged. Imprisoning millions of these people does not make us safer. But imprisoning 2.3 million people does deplete government coffers resulting in massive cuts in programs—like California’s system of higher education—that have proven track records for reducing crime.

A smarter and more compassionate criminal justice system could not only save lives and restore communities especially hard hit by imprisonments, it could save us from fiscal meltdown.

Sarah van Gelder is executive editor of YES! Magazine and yesmagazine.org. The Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine is “Beyond Prisons.”



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