Lock ‘Em Up

Around the world the United States of America is still known as the ‘land of opportunity’. This nation is often thought of as the place where people are allowed to move beyond their circumstances and, if they work hard enough, not let their past dictate their future — but does that apply to everyone? What happens when mistakes are made along the way; will opportunities for advancement still present themselves or are some mistakes unforgivable? Conversely, what types of mistakes should be put into the category of ‘you’ve-been-punished-but-now-you-can-move-on’?

America is a nation with a disproportionately large prison population; with over 2.3 million currently incarcerated, we have enough people locked up to repopulate an entire country. The US produces nearly one-fourth of the world’s prisoners even though we have fewer than 5 percent of the world’s people. Ridiculously, people in the US are locked up for such heinous crimes such as marijuana use, passing bad checks and even improper importation of flowers without the appropriate paper work so as not to run afoul of international trade laws — actions that, in other countries are punishable by fines.

With all of the silliness discussed on the national platform, I find it odd that only Ron Paul, with any consistency, has mentioned prison reform and altering laws that could change the rate of incarceration. One would think that conservatives of all stripes would support prison sentence reform:

  • Fiscal conservatives should take a look at the dollars expended. The amount of money spent on detaining non-violent offenders averages 50,000 per year per prisoner on the state and local level. Isn’t that something? Yale is cheaper than jail.
  • Libertarians should look at the gross inequities in the current sentencing structure. How does it help society to lock up someone who has been convicted a third time of one ounce of marijuana for the same length of time as someone who has been convicted of far greater crimes such as rape or murder?
  • Social conservatives can take a look at studies showing what the breakdown of the family structure does to communities.

America is a nation of action — that is, when we want to be. We responded to a drug epidemic with the ‘War on Drugs’ (see DrugSense for statistics on money expended in this “war”) and we also produced ‘Three Strikes You’re Out’ legislation that has taken us down the road to harsh prison sentences, overcrowded prisons and severely strained government budgets that must keep up with an increasing prison population. Unfortunately, these measures have not provided proof that the more harsh the prison sentence, the more likely a prisoner is to be reformed. In fact, some of these laws bring to mind the thought that our prison sentences focus more on retribution than reform.

Isn’t it long past time that we took action and created laws that are about real reform? The impact on society has ramifications that will last for generations; families are torn apart, communities are damaged, the offender’s life is forever marred by his/her inability to participate in the privileges of society such as voting and necessities for survival such as obtaining housing and food assistance.

The economic impact is wide and deep for the people who have been incarcerated though the economic impact isn’t negative for all concerned — as evidenced by recent reports revealing that prison has become a lucrative enterprise for private corporations that are benefitting from the all but free labour.

And don’t get me started on the judges who have taken kickbacks to lock up juveniles; that’s a post for another day.