- Important: All passwords were reset on 06/15/11. Old passwords will no longer work. Click here to retrieve your password.
- Subscribe to Our Free Dewsletter
We are non-commercial, all volunteer and supported by our readers. Please help sustain the Dew by making a donation.
Push to Reform Prison System Brings Unlikely Allies Together
Over the past 15 years, the US prison population has more than doubled. There are 2.3 million Americans behind bars – that’s one in 100. About half of the people in prison are serving time for nonviolent offenses, including drug possession. More than 60 percent of US prisoners are black or Hispanic, according to the Pew Center on the States.
With just over 4 percent of the world’s population, the US accounts for a quarter of the planet’s prisoners and has more inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined.
Corrections is now the second-fastest growing spending category for states, behind only Medicaid, costing $50 billion annually and accounting for $1 of every $14 discretionary dollars. California spends approximately $50,000 per prisoner per year, far more than the state spends on students.
In a May 14, 2011, New York Times op-ed, Michele Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” writes, “Thirty years of civil rights litigation and advocacy have failed to slow the pace of a racially biased drug war or to prevent the emergence of a penal system of astonishing size. Yet a few short years of tight state budgets have inspired former ‘get tough’ true believers to suddenly denounce the costs of imprisonment. ‘We’re wasting tax dollars on prisons,’ they say. It’s time to shift course.’”
The push to reform the prison system has brought unlikely allies together. Earlier this year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People joined forces with Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich who is part of a new prison reform initiative called Right on Crime.
In September, Inimai Chettiar, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union wrote about speaking alongside members of Right on Crime and the faith-based Prison Fellowship at the American Bar Association’s initiative to “Save States Money, Reform Criminal Justice and Keep the Public Safe.”
“Never before have so many legislators, governors and advocates from all sides of the aisle come together with a single unifying theme on criminal justice: we need to end our addiction to incarceration,” she writes.
Yet, it’s all too rare to hear about their efforts.
Craig DeRoche, former Michigan State House speaker, recently joined Prison Fellowship, which works with conservative politicians to reform the system. In June 2010, DeRoche was arrested at his home after a family member called to say he was drunk and carrying a gun. DeRoche says he knew he was an alcoholic as a young child. At the ripe age of 14, he couldn’t stop drinking.
“I had this demon, if you will, that I was very dishonest about and kept out of public view and it really showed up on the stage with a vengeance in 2010,” he says.
DeRoche was on probation for six months and says now that his demons have been exposed, he’s free to talk about the failings of the system. “I tell my conservative friends that what we’re doing is breaking up families. We’re taking a parent away from their children. We’re preventing them from providing for their families. We’re not doing anything that resembles conservatism as I understood it. I get to see that first hand. I see dots being connected and people saying, ‘I needed someone like you to tell me these stories.’”
Tim Cavanaugh, managing editor of Reason.com, the web site for the libertarian Reason Magazine, says prison reform should be a major issue for conservatives, yet more often than not, it’s falsely framed as a liberal issue. He notes that Mario Cuomo, the “great liberal governor of New York,” was the pioneer of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, and California, the most liberal state in the country, passed a three-strikes law in 1994.
Reason’s July issue was dedicated to prison reform with articles focusing on prosecutorial misconduct on death row, the costs involved in leading the world in locking up human beings and how California prison guards became the country’s most powerful union.
Cavanaugh says one solution would be a ten-year moratorium on new laws at the city, state and federal levels. He would also end the so-called war on drugs. “You can get rid of a huge body of cancerous US legal code just by eliminating the war on drugs. Ending the war on drugs would solve these problems,” he says. “We are the revolutionaries. We are the ones who are trying to tear down the castle walls and there are a lot of folks who want to keep it.”
Robert Perkinson, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii and author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire,” says because the Obama administration hasn’t made criminal reform a priority, his optimism varies.
“For 40 years, almost every legislature, most intensely in the South, have made the situation worse by creating new crimes, by extending sentences, by cutting back programs and by increasing prison construction,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot of government action and grassroots mobilization to turn this around and dismantle this incredibly wasteful and harmful system. I hope that begins to happen, but so far, we’re not seeing the effort that needs to take place, but maybe we’re at a tipping point.”
Listen to Your Call discuss what groups and individuals from different political backgrounds are doing to collaborate on prison reform.
Robert Perkinson, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii and author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire.”
Tim Cavanaugh, managing editor of Reason.com, the web site for Reason Magazine.
Craig DeRoche, director of external affairs for Prison Fellowship.
- Editor's Note: This story originally appeared Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at Truth-out.org and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Photo licensed by LikeTheDew.com on 123RF Stock Photo
Worthy of Comment
Also on the Dew
Ever hear of "due diligence?" That's a term often seen in business stories, particularly when public accountants are working at checking the financial background of companies who might want to buy or sell to one another. Some people at the University of Georgia apparently don't understand or use the term "due diligence," especially when it comes to recruiting football players. One group defines "due diligence" in two ways: 1. An investigation or audit of a potential investment. Due diligence serves to confirm all material facts in regards to a sale. 2. Generally, due diligence refers to the care a reasonable person should take before Read on →
How many of you are aware that Albert Einstein taught a physics class at Lincoln University (an HBCU in Pennsylvania) in 1946? In doing so, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist once said, "The separation of the races is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.” Another noted figure, Martin Luther King, once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” But we have become silent, for I don’t see the human outcry about where we are today. We have be Read on →
You knew in the beginning it was folly, no good -- like that girl who lived around the corner your Momma said was "fast." “She's gonna take your money and your stomp on your heart,” Momma said. You knew it too ... but you went anyway. YOU You promised yourself you would not get involved this time. You knew all about the probabilities ... the impossibilities, really. You knew all about the odds against success, heard Nate Silver -- or somebody -- use $5 words like “implacable,” “infinitesimal” and “asymptotic” to assure Charlie Rose the odds were ridiculous. And yes, you knew it was a Fool's Notion Read on →
Before I fell asleep last night, my wife Jody read aloud to me from her copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Lacuna. The passage she chose was a diary entry that opened: “Tonight’s news: the Allies broke open the dikes along the Netherlands coast, letting in the open sea and drowning thousands of German soldiers in the flood. Like the Azteca opening dikes to drown Cortés and his men on the shores of Lake Tenochtitlan. But fiction is nonsense, the war is real. Tomorrow the farmers of Walcheren will wake to see a tide standing over their crops, the floating corpses of the Read on →