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Time To End The Needless Social Harm Our Justice System Inflicts

Memo Pad National News

Time To End The Needless Social Harm Our Justice System Inflicts


America is facing up to one of its greatest failures: our grossly unfair criminal justice system.

In and out of the public eye, corrections officials, legislatures and law enforcement authorities have been inching toward reforming it.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced a historic about-face on how low-level, nonviolent drug crimes will be prosecuted; in particular, he instructed U.S. attorneys to avoid bringing charges against certain offenders that would trigger severe federal mandatory sentencing. If allowed to go forward, Holder’s gambit could lead to significant reductions in the number of people locked up in America.

The U.S. holds the distinction of the world’s highest incarceration rate. One in every 100 adults — 2.3 million people — was behind bars in 2010, according to the Pew Center on the States.

Holder’s announcement is the obvious follow-up to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. The legislation sought to correct the inequities between the sentencing of people caught with crack cocaine and those convicted of crimes related to powdered coke. Five grams of crack, the form of cocaine more likely to be in the possession of African-Americans, carried the same obligatory sentence as that triggered by 500 grams of powder, the preference for many white people.

An ongoing issue is whether the legislation will apply retroactively, something that both Congress and the courts are weighing.

A July report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that about half the states have taken significant steps in recent years to reduce the size of their prison populations, thereby cutting costs to taxpayers. Reforms such as alternative sentencing and lower mandatory sentences for some crimes all played a role.

Also this summer, the Federal Communications Commission voted to lower interstate prison phone rates. This change helps the families of more than 2 million inmates who often paid predatory rates when their incarcerated loved ones called them. The decision was more than 10 years in the making and will greatly affect the ability of families to stay in touch, crucial for reducing recidivism.

While these changes are encouraging, reshaping America’s prisons and our punitive mentality will not be easy. What is the human cost of our penchant for revenge, our emphasis on punishment without much attention to the equal need for rehabilitation? Just consider the newest Muppet introduced by the Sesame Workshop. “Alex,” whose story appears online only, is a character whose father is serving time.

Alex was introduced for a good reason. One in 28 children has a parent who is imprisoned. More than half of America’s prisoners are mothers and fathers with a child under the age of 18. And two-thirds of those parents are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

Mary Sanchez

Mary Sanchez has spent years covering immigration, schools, and other volatile beats for The Kansas City Star. She is now an editorial columnist for the Star, where she continues to offer insightful commentary on immigration, culture, and politics.

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  1. charleo1 August 20, 2013

    This is going to be a very heavy lift for a society that seems to have become less interested in the plight of the under privileged in general. Much less a subset of
    those who find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.
    So we ignore the fact that most of the individuals now serving time in our Nation’s
    jails, and penitentiaries, are disproportionately poor, people of color, have no
    marketable skill, and cannot function educationally, beyond a 4th, or 5th grade
    level. Or, the fact that 80/85% released on parol, or probation, will violate, and be
    returned to serve out their entire sentence. And that, the overwhelming number,
    of individuals released after serving their full sentence, will return to to prison.
    For one thing, we as a society, have decided to place much more emphasis on
    punishment, than rehabilitation. Which results in essentially warehousing inmates.
    We have also decided to increase the penalties, and sentences for a wide variety
    of non-violent crimes. And are trying more, and more younger offenders as adults.
    Many States have taken to using inmates to preform manual labor tasks, such as picking up trash along roadways. A savings to tax payers perhaps. Until the inmate
    is released, as 90% are. But finds there are no jobs for a felon with a record, and experience in picking up litter along the highway. What do we in fact expect?
    My opponent is coddling criminals, and I’ll be tough on those who would harm
    you, or your children speeches, are far too easy to make. No Governor, or Prosecutor, wants a Willie Horton in his past. Even though the program Horton
    abused lowered recidivism rates, by keeping the inmate’s family ties in tact.
    So, a throw away the keys approach to crime becomes the smart political move.
    A trend toward incarceration corporations, now has lobbyist urging law makers
    to enact longer sentences, and more onerous, and sometimes impossible parol
    requirements. The inmate is now a profit making product. The longer he, or she
    can be locked away, the better the bottom line for the corporate jailer, or jail
    builders. We have become a multi tiered society. Those with criminal records are
    forced back into crime, or the underground economy. In many States the
    restoration of their Civil Rights, or to hold a business license, or to be bonded,
    is denied, without a lengthy, and expensive legal procedure. In Florida the process
    requires the personal attention, and approval, of two top level cabinet appointees,
    and the Governor himself, to restore a felon’s Civil Rights. Without mercy, or
    common sense, the incarceration industry is a thriving, growing business. Supported entirely by the tax dollars that are being siphoned off from education,
    or job training, or drug rehabilitation, to staunch the addictions, that in more than half the total cases, drove the subject into crime, and into the criminal justice system in the first place. I am reminded of a young Black kid, who at the age of 21 had
    completed his first prison term starting at age 17 for low level pot dealing. He said,
    I apply for jobs, but I come to the question, “Have you ever been arrested?”
    “If so, explain why.” “It’s like they want me to go back to the streets.” he said.
    I think he was a lot more right, than many of us are willing to admit.

    1. Michael Kollmorgen August 20, 2013

      No matter what crime you committed, once you are off parole and your rights as a citizen are reinstated, people should leave you alone and;

      be able to get a job (within reason) without the fear of background checks
      be able to obtain a place to live (within reason) without a background check

      Now, for a price, anyone can look up a persons name and check their backgrounds. This to me is a total invasion of privacy. The ONLY people who should have the ability to pull a background check is your Police, the Court System and no one else.

      While you are in prison and a few years before you are to be paroled, IF you have no marketable skills, you should have access to good educational opportunities such as good vocational training, college coursework that is either good for entry-level jobs or can be continued at your local college or university once you are paroled.

      It might not be a bad idea to be paroled to a different state, as far as away as possible, from the people and life situation which got you involved in your crime and have full and complete social and legal support to make a go of it.

      Anyone with a diagnosed mental disorder should NEVER go to prison. They should be sent to a good mental hospital facility and treated for their mental disorder. Prisons are being used as a housing unit for mental disorders. There is no psychological treatment in prison.

      Also, having a mental disorder in prison makes it much harder on the inmate due to other inmates taking advantage of the weaker emotional disordered inmate which makes them worse over time.

      1. charleo1 August 20, 2013

        I agree with everything you pointed out. Especially, after a person
        has completed paying their debt to society, so to speak. They ought
        not to be further confined by a mistake they may have made as a
        16, or 17 year old kid. But, they are. And that’s a huge part of the
        revolving door syndrome. Also, as private prisons have begun to
        proliferate, opportunities for inmates to learn marketable skills
        have been sacrificed to the bottom line. And, let’s face it, these
        for profit outfits have no incentive in seeing these people rehabbed.
        In fact they make profit when the person returns.

        1. Michael Kollmorgen August 21, 2013

          At one time, our prison system wasn’t filled with mentally disabled people who committed crimes, at least not major ones.

          These people, those who were diagnosed with mental disorders were sent to state-run institutions to be treated, some permanently.

          Each state closed down their facilities one by one and sent their patients to regular prisons.

          The focus changed from rehabilitation to punishment around 30 years ago. And, it’s only gotten worse over the years.

          There was also a change in the type of crimes which were more prosecuteable, easier to get a conviction on. These new crimes were things like minor sex offenses due to social stigma and minor drug offenses. Neither of these types of crimes should have been served in prison, but rather mental facilities, house arrest, out-patient mental treatment.

          Basically what has been going on is that states are loosing revenue due to plant closing, downturn in the economy. They have to make the difference up somehow.

          Also, since the end of the Cold War, the US hasn’t got anymore “real” enemies. So, now this country has turned inward and creates its own enemies internally and use groups of people as scapegoats to blame everything that is wrong, on.

          And, you can be sure of one thing, with each state passing new laws and legislation, our prisons will keep getting filled with these victims. If it wasn’t a crime before, or people just ignored it, it will be a crime eventually.

  2. clarenceswinney August 20, 2013

    60th-80th Percentile=$100,700
    40th-60th Percentile=$12,200
    Bottom 40%=$14,800
    What scares me is control of voting via computer programs.
    In last election I voted a straight D but, on review, all came up R
    Robert Reich of University of California put it simple and truthful in a brief outline:
    “Suppose a small group of extremely wealth people sought to systematically destroy the U.S. Government by finding and bankrolling new candidates pledged to shrinking and dismembering it—
    intimidating or bribing many current senators and representatives—to block all proposed legislation, prevent the appointment of presidential nominees, eliminate funds to implement and enforce laws
    and—threaten to default on the nation’s debt—taking over state governments in order to redistrict, gerrymander, require voter IDs, purge voter rolls and otherwise suppress the votes of the majority in federal elections—running a vast PR campaign designed to convince the American public of certain big lies, such as climate change is a hoax And—buying up the media so the public cannot know the truth—would you call this Treason or what?”
    Who controls our voting machines and vote counters? Vote counter Diebold was sold to a Republican.
    What a wonderful simple analysis on American politics today.

    1. Sand_Cat August 20, 2013

      I agree, but I missed the connection to the article.
      Since you opened the topic, it seems to me that there is infinitely more chance of fraud using voting machines with no paper trail, which is where the people worried about “voter fraud” would be going if they really gave a damn about voter fraud.

  3. tdm3624 August 20, 2013

    Great article! I agree entirely. Meth is huge in my county and the addicts need access to rehab, not locked up in jail.


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