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President Trumping Prison Reform

The United States is far out of balance in the way we treat crime and punishment.

We have only 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prison beds. Our rate of incarceration is almost four times that of Europe, and ten times that of Japan. And when it comes to ratings of judicial equity, we rank only 23rd of 31 peer countries.

Everyone who looks at it objectively realizes that our correctional system is unfair, ineffective, inefficient, expensive, and inhumane. There must be a better way.

Reform Gains Support

In polarized Washington, prison reform has been the only issue in recent times to command widespread bipartisan support, uniting polar opposites like the right-wing Koch brothers and the liberal George Soros.

The need for reform is too obvious to ignore. The goals are to get better funding for public defenders, reduce sentencing disparities, lower mandatory minimums, improve prison programs and living conditions, reduce the use of solitary confinement, and ease the transition between prison and community.

person in prisonWanting to focus a spotlight on the issue, Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison: “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” His administration has reduced prosecutions for crimes that have inappropriately harsh mandatory minimums, equalized the penalties for crack and powder cocaine, and worked to eliminate private prisons in the federal system.

Reform makes sense both on equity and economic grounds. Prisons are terribly wasteful of people and financial resources. The prison system is fundamentally inequitable. We imprison minorities and the poor unfairly and give them disproportionately long sentences. Blacks are imprisoned at a rate five times higher than whites; Latinos at twice the rate. A smart lawyer can get you short or no time (especially if you are white) for a crime that gets you long time if you are poor and black. Punishments should fit the crime, not the color or socioeconomic resources of the accused.

American justice is supposedly founded on the presumption of innocence. But DNA evidence shows how often the innocent are found guilty, sometimes in court, but much more because they are forced to cop false guilty pleas.

We inappropriately imprison small-time substance users and hundreds of thousands of the mentally ill. Wasted prison funding can be much more usefully spent on rehabilitation, community treatment, housing, education, and job training.

More prisons don’t translate into less crime. Longer prison sentences aren’t necessarily better than short. Studies suggest that rather than reduce recidivism, prisons may increase it. Diversion programs work better, are much cheaper, and are much more humane.

Federal and local judges in many jurisdictions are working closely with prosecutors and community treatment programs to provide rehabilitation and housing for substance users and the mentally ill who would otherwise go to prison. Most people working in the judicial and correctional system (with the notable exception of unions representing prison guards) agree that the current system is unfair, inflexible, overly punitive, expensive, and broken.

Turning Prisoners Into Profit

The United States has gone into the prison industry big time – one of the few parts of our economy that has experienced rapid growth. The private prisons now rake in almost $4 billion in annual revenue and spend millions on lobbying legislators and giving them big campaign contributions. Approximately half a million Americans now work as prison guards.

The private prison lobby, combined with the correctional officer unions, have become powerful forces against decriminalization of drug abuse, laws legalizing undocumented immigrants, lowered mandatory minimum sentences, early release for good behavior, rehabilitation services, and shorter prison sentences.

Private prisons cut corners to enhance profit. They warehouse prisoners and monetize them rather than providing an environment that will make them better people when they are released. Although the buildings are modern, the system feels medieval.

Trump Plays Sheriff

Trump has always assumed a tough guy persona on law and order; campaigning on a tough-on-crime platform and immigration crackdown which together will refill emptying prisons. Trump is wrong on correctional issues in all sorts of ways, some of them strange.

Trump loves private prisons, despite the widely recognized fact that they provide lousy service to prisoners and charge rip-off prices to taxpayers.-Allen Frances

As part of his science denial, he doubts the veracity of exonerating DNA evidence. He defended ‘stop and frisk’ laws, even after they were found to be unconstitutional. He asserts that more prisons will reduce crime when the prevailing evidence suggests otherwise.

And Trump loves private prisons, despite the widely recognized fact that they provide lousy service to prisoners and charge rip-off prices to taxpayers. The stock of the largest private prison operator had dropped 35% under Obama and jumped 45% immediately after he was elected.

The states have never been great on prison reform and often had to be prodded by the federal government. The irony is that now they are the best hope for prison reform, both because of the well-funded lobbying efforts backing it and the fact that Trump is so retrogressive. The action will be in the states, which house 88% of the prisoners. The ultimate fate of prison reform rests more with local DA’s than in the office of the president. And the combined efforts of rational prison reformists from the right and left may prevail over Trump’s ignorance and grandstanding.



Images Courtesy of iStock