Monday, May 5, 2014

Incarceration Nation

This blog first appeared on May 5, 2014 in DelawareLiberal by ProgressivePopulist.

Much is being written recently about the appalling status of incarceration rates in the U.S.A.  Not much is being done.  All sorts of causal factors are cited: the War on Drugs, poverty, moral breakdown, the economy, mental illness, demise of the social contract.....the list is endless.

Solutions don't seem to be endless. International comparisons are shocking.  We're number one in rate of incarceration world-wide.

Something in excess of 2 million of our citizens languish in federal and state prisons and local jails.  One telling piece of data suggests that 2 of 3 prisoners will be jailed again in three years post-release.   State prison numbers tell us about 53% of convictions are for violent acts, 18.3 % property issues, 16.8% drug convictions and 10.6% public order issues such as illegal weapons.  Obviously many crimes involve several of these categories together.

Little Delaware figures prominently in position # 6 for violent crime and # 13 for property charges.  Most shocking to me was 86.8 % of Delaware drug convictions involve African Americans.  The numbers indicate locally and nationally that drug use rates are comparable between African Americans and Anglo Americans.   What's up here?  I'll  leave the assessment up to you, dear readers.

Overall, though accounting for 13% of the U.S. population,  African Americans comprise about 39% of the prison population; the ratio is similar in Delaware, so no slack is cut here locally.
These numbers are causing a much needed national conversation and criminal justice reform activism is heating up, but way too slowly by my observation.  Reforms are all over the lot; some focus on our absurd commercial bail bond system; other on pre-trial detention, the small number of convictions via jury and bench trials vs. plea bargains,  better representation for the poor population with public defenders, sentencing guidelines.  The most explosive growth in the past 30 years ties to drug convictions. So drug policy is being revisited.

We as a nation seem not to have resolved our philosophy regarding incarceration; ie: rehabilitation vs. punishment.  That debate rages on.  Endlessly.

I find it ironic that much of the reform movement in the criminal justice system lately to reduce the prison population comes from the right.  They are focused on the cost issues.   The right is also taking the initiative regarding the stunning statistic that something in the area of 25% of the prison population suffer severe mental illness.  Further, some of that population is  getting in-prison treatment and the imprisoned mentally ill outnumber the hospitalized mentally ill.

I would have expected that Democrats have seen the error of their ways in defensively reacting to charges of being "soft on crime" back in the 70's and 80's and tolerant of drug use by putting the hammer down on offenders.  But I do not see and hear from my fellow Democrats a major embrace of criminal justice reform.  We appear to me to be the advocates of the status quo in the criminal justice world, though much of our coalition is severely impacted by injustice in our criminal justice system.

Solutions, anyone?