Monday, January 10, 2011

Conservatives for Prison Reform

For anyone who has been involved in prison reform in the past three to four decades or anyone who has read Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, the following news may come as a shock.  This past Friday, Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan published an article in The Washington Post entitled, "Prison Reform: A Smart Way for States to Save Money and Lives."  Though the focus is on dollars and sense, not human dignity or racism, I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Republicans like Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan may have been instrumental in implementing policies such as the Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs and their "tough on crime" rhetoric, specifically targeting African Americans, but today conservatives are finally realizing that the current rate of incarceration in the United States is economically unsustainable. Because of The Great Recession, we have a unique opportunity to address the issue of mass incarceration from an economic perspective, and state governments are so strapped for cash they are more willing to listen than ever.

In Washington State, the governor has asked the Department of Corrections to cut their budget by $53 million, just over 6 percent.  Some of the cuts include eliminating electronic home monitoring, except for sex offenders and one day per month lock downs where inmates will only be allowed to leave their cells for meals. Other ideas proposed included shortening the length of socks. This change would result in a savings of approximately $20,000. Another proposal suggested limiting the number of sugar packets allowed to each inmate. Small potatoes when we really start talking numbers.

In the State of Washington, it costs taxpayers approximately $37,500 per inmate per year. The state prison population is now about 18,600, and approximately 11% of that population, or approximately 2,100 people, are serving Life Without Parole or are on Death Row.

Many of these inmates are imprisoned due to drug addictions and would be better treated through rehabilitation and recovery programs than they are through incarceration.  The recidivism rate among drug addicts is approximately 78%.  Without treatment, these individuals go in and out of the system, costing the public hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.  Many finally land in prison for life because they have never had adequate treatment for their addictions.

Millions of dollars are also spent to house inmates who have struck out under Three Strikes laws, approximately 300 in Washington. Many of these individuals commited non-violent crimes under the age of 25.  Recent medical studies have shown that dramatic changes occur in the brain development of teenagers and young adults, which affect the decision-making areas of the brain.  As these individuals mature, they should be given a chance to be rehabilitated and released to become productive members of our society.

Finally, statistics also show the rate of recidivism decreases dramatically for those over 60 years of age, but they cost the State more as they age due to age-related health costs. 

Lawmakers could be looking at all of these groups to save money without creating a danger to public safety.

Want to make a difference on this issue? Head to your state capitol and lobby to reform or repeal Three Strikes legislation in your state. Because of budget cuts, these conversations are happening in every state.  In Washington, folks will be headed to Olympia on February 14th to discuss sentencing reform and bringing back the Parole Board incrementally. Please support us in Olympia.

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