Prison reform in America

Prison Is The Symptom Of The Problem


In 2018 Florida voted to restore voting rights to formerly convicted felons.  I was proud that this amendment was overwhelmingly passed by the voters, it is the right thing to do, period.  It is right the so many citizens on the left and right care about criminal justice reform, overflowing prisons and high incarceration rates are troubling.  But full prisons are the symptom of a problem, not the problem in itself.

Here are some of the things we can all agree on.  Heavy policing causes animosity in the neighborhoods where heavy policing is required.  There are a few bad actors, but by and large we are fortunate to have millions of interactions with police every day in this country that are fair and civil, as they should be.

The police could not spread out their manpower evenly over their cities and towns, this would be a complete waste of resources and leave some neighborhoods with higher crime rates desperately under-policed and vulnerable to crime.  It is unfortunate that those most vulnerable to crime suffer the most from both under and over policing.  But as a society we need to protect citizen.

Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines were well intentioned.  Many of those incarcerated are repeat offenders, and courts are over crowded.  Those that are innocent have the right to a speedy trial, and so the guidelines were meant to force more plea deals when there is a clear and cut case.  Now 95% of convictions are plea deals negotiated by the AG and don’t go to court, guidelines help in the negotiations.  However, we should trust judges since they are presented with the evidence and can get a sense of the accused in person, and allow them much more flexibility in sentencing.

We are fortunate to by and large live in a society that is generally safe, and run by law and order, and a rule of law that is fair and just.  This has benefits beyond people’s feelings of comfort, it is a huge benefit to our economy.

Execution is a difficult issue. I could understand if someone killed a member of my family that I would want them dead. But we are an evolved society, or should strive to be and should be beyond execution. Plus the economics of it don’t work.

The impulse of many is to say, well let’s let out all of the non-violent criminals, it was just a marijuana crime.  Those statistics are misleading.  While the conviction was for a drug crime, often the police in the neighborhoods know who the criminals are, the gang members and repeat offenders, because they have to deal with the same people over and over.  Often the criminal is taken off the streets by a simple possession crime, they have a long rap sheet, because it is easier to find evidence of and convict.

Obviously private prisons need to go.  The incentive are backwards.  This is fairly straightforward.  The reason Republican have always supported criminal justice reform because prisons are expensive for taxpayers, and if they are not necessary then we could all save money.

In the latest GOP criminal justice reform bill it included provisions for little jail time for more white collar crimes.  While this seems unfair, wealthier criminals should pay for their own incarceration at their homes, with house arrest, community service and fines.

Education in prisons is a good idea, reform of those incarcerated is the ideal to help make productive members of our society.  And why shouldn’t we, we care about all our citizens.  Technical training with a career path and jobs placement might help former convicts from returning to a life of crime and fill jobs that are needed.

If we really want to reduce the number of criminals in prisons it has to start way before a life of crime. The guy that used to wash windows in my office building in New York lived in one of those dangerous neighborhoods.  One morning we were chatting and he told me about a drive by shooting where a bullet hit his house, and he said he told the young men in his neighborhood that were gang members, ‘if you want to shoot someone, join the Army.’

I believe in the goodness of people, and a life of crime can be avoided with purpose and options.  Technical education in secondary schools could be a great option for someone not inclined to go on to higher education, and would lead to productive ways of supporting ones self and hopefully a family.