Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Our Common Effort for Ending Mass Incarceration

The Commonwealth Foundation, a libertarian think tank focused on budget and economic issues, usually doesn't care what the ACLU is doing. And vice versa. The Pennsylvania Family Institute does, but only because it typically opposes us on issues like reproductive rights and LGBT rights.

But here's something we all agree on: Something has to change in the way Pennsylvania sentences, imprisons and paroles inmates, particularly non-violent offenders. All of us agree that, if we stay on our present course, our prison system will bankrupt the commonwealth. Overincarceration is a matter of justice, but it's also a case for the American pocketbook, costing taxpayers billions each year, with very little evidence to suggest that it's particularly effective.

Recently, I wrote an article discussing the role that the overincarceration of Black America has played in having more African-Americans now under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. While this fact reeks of unfairness in our correctional system, the problem is systemic, arising from larger punitory trends born from Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs. Now, in America, 2.3 million people are imprisoned, constituting 25% of the world's prison population.

Pennsylvania certainly hasn't been exempt from the problem. Over the past thirty years, the incarceration rate in the commonwealth has skyrocketed to the tune of $200 million for taxpayers. It costs $32,986 annually to house just one prisoner in our state. Yet, many prisoners here aren't put in jail for violent crimes, but rather for drug abuse or parole violations, which means that we're just putting a very expensive band-aid on the wrong wounds.

The need for reform is clear, but how can we fix this problem? The ACLU of Pennsylvania believes that if someone commits low-level, non-violent offenses, such as taking illegal drugs, that person should not go to prison. Instead, he or she should be sent to treatment. Also, we need to start instituting sanctions for parole and probation violators other than sending them to jail.

Recently, we began working with former Pennsylvania governor George Leader and his family to promote prison reform in the commonwealth. Leader, who has worked to help counsel inmates and to keep them away from crime after getting out, believes that now is the time for reform. We agree.

The ACLU also has teamed up with the Commonwealth Foundation, which is working with the Right on Crime coalition alongside Governor Jeb Bush and former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. The Commonwealth Foundation has done an admirable job pointing out that a number of states, such as the infamously tough-on-crime Texas, have been appropriating money away from building new prisons and into treatment options. This has helped stop repeat offenses from those who are nonviolent and mentally ill and those who are addicted to drugs.

A new bill aimed at reform, SB100, is now in the state senate. Alongside policy recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Working Group (JRWG), we're looking at a great first step toward reform. For instance, SB100 proposes creating the Safe Community Reentry Program, which will develop individualized plans for prisoners reintegrating into society. Additionally, some of the ideas proposed by the JRWG will save Pennsylvania over $350 million by 2017.

Though this bill and these recommendations can be improved in certain places, the ACLU, Governor Leader, and those at the Commonwealth Foundation are fighting to help guide us toward an equitable and humane solution for our state and those under its correctional control.

The famous historian Howard Zinn once wrote, "Imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime." While I'm sure we can all agree that some people are in prison for the right reasons, we also have to admit that we're imprisoning far too many people who shouldn't be there. As a country, and as a state, we shouldn't have to stomach the problems of this morally questionable system, especially with our hard-earned dollars.

-- Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania

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