The House That 3 Strikes Built
Since I began studying the phenomenon of mass imprisonment, I have witnessed little evidence to convince me that America's mania, and it is a mania, to incarcerate shall abate any time soon, despite the overwhelming evidence of the pervasive societal devastation which it has produced. It does appear though that the national crisis occurring within the US prison system may have reached an impasse.
California, the home of "3 Strikes" legislation, is the largest US prison system with a census last reported at approximately 156,000 prisoners -- double its capacity. Last year, journalist Ted Koppel walked the TV viewing audience through one of California's 33 prisons with bunk-beds stacked three high filling gymnasiums and hall passages. Mr. Koppel reported the prison population at 173,000 prisoners. Prison officials admitted with little hesitancy that educational and rehabilitative programs were essentially non--existent, in spite of state laws which mandate them. The faulty prison healthcare system is reportedly responsible for one death per week. The governor, former actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, admits the system is in a "state of emergency," and a federal court agrees. In February of this year, the state of California was ordered to reduce its prison population by roughly 55,000 within three years. California is appealing the decision. All agree that the rapid expansion of the prison population is due to the 3 Strikes law, which requires third-time felons convicted of any felony to serve a mandatory 25 years to Life, yet no discussion has commenced about the apparent need to roll-back a law which lacks any proportionality. Point of fact: California spends more each year on its monstrous, broken prison system than it does on all of its state universities combined.
Other US states are faring no better. Kentucky's Persisteflt Felony Offender legislation has been employed to incarcerate offenders for decades behind bars for criminal offenses as minor as possession of a single gram of cocaine or a forged instrument. Professor Robert Lawson, a former University of Kentucky School of Law dean, who helped write the original repeat offender law over 34 years ago states without reservation that the misapplication of the PFO statute is "draconian," and has been utilized, in effect, to sweep under the rug those in society who are "more of a public nuisance than a threat." Despite Kentucky's growing problem of prison overcrowding, as well as the rising costs related to building and maintaining state prisons -- a cost which will approach a half--billion dollars this year, state prosecutors vehemently resist any stance, but "lock 'em up and throw away the keys." I observed an open discussion on the local public television channel between Prof. Lawson, state prosecutors, and the head of the state justice department; the language from the prosecutors was ugly and acrimonious to a point beyond belief. One former state legislator admitted that the inclination to limit PFO to only serious and violent offenses, as it was intended, would be seen as being "soft on crime." Clearly, public officials need to get elected, but they will find it more and more difficult to balance the budget as well as the weight of the greatest economic crisis since The Great Depression takes hold of state budgets.
The Pew organization in Washington, D.C., recently released a study about current prison populations. The results were shocking: one out of every 100 adults in the US is behind bars. Then I read Louisiana's statistics, also reported in the Pew survey: one out of every 55 Louisiana residents resides in prison, and one out of every 26 adults is being supervised via probation or parole. These are numbers which I simply cannot comprehend. I would love to see a red dot on the Louisiana map where each of these probationers and parolees are, and then a blue dot on the prisoners. The rural areas would have all the blue, and the impoverished inner--city areas would be red; it would seem that prison and probation/parole jobs are secure-- if the state can keep paying them.
Naturally, the states most affected by incarceration have large numbers of impoverished citizens. A situation which shall worsen as the economic crisis takes hold. These states also have larger numbers of ethnic minorities and substandard educational systems. And still there are those in the field who are offering a different approach.
New cost--effective, culturally--sensitive strategies to reduce crime have been shown to produce real results by implementing tactics which work from within the affected communities. These programs do not include more police enforcement, but less, nor more prisons, nor harsher sentencing laws, and as such, there seems little enthusiasm for them. More prisons and even longer prison terms for all crimes is the mantra. I continue to wait for this historical pendulum to swing back to reform, rehabilitation, and a focus on solving our country's root causes of crime, and I wait, and I wait.
You may say that much has occurred in our time that we could never have imagined: the fall of the USSR, China's rise from a backwater to an economic and military powerhouse, a fully-- functioning international space station, and even the election of the first African--American US president by a country which is still a white majority of about 70 percent. Still, I doubt I will See the US address the true causes of crime in this country, thus emptying out the prisons. Yes, America seems to be shifting to its political Left, and yes, with the racial dynamics changing, ethnic groups most affected by incarceration may stand up and assert their political will, but I see a large middle--class which is far more interested in tax breaks and egregious executive bonuses for those who helped create our current economic mess. The powerful forces which have worked together to build this leviathan called the Prison Industrial Complex continue to sweep up our poor like so much human refuse and dump them into a dehumanizing, destructive, and, often, unconstitutional system that we so glibly call "corrections." The large voting middle class is unaware and unconcerned. I believe that America will be judged harshly by this massimprisonment, and for today, well, the story is not exactly over...
The US has experienced the Housing Bubble burst, the financial markets crash, and the Dow--Jones plummet. This country's economic collapse may achieve over the next ten years what reasonableness, clear--thinking, fairness, and common sense has not: proportionality and equal application in our criminal justice system resulting in a sharp reduction in the US prison population, and a diminution of its annihilatory effects upon our society.
Corey John Richardson, MPAS, BHSc 2009
Always on my mind. (2009, February 9).Newsweek, 53.
Crime, interrupted. (2008, December). The Economist: The World in 2009, 44.
Friend, T. (2007, July 30). Dean of death row. The New Yorker, 65.
Koppel, T. (2008, October 7). Breaking point. Discovery Channel, 9:00 pm.
Louisiana. (2009, March 13). 7he week, 6.
Order to reduce inmate population. (2009, February, 20). The Week, 7. Sacramento, CA. (2008, December 21). 7&2 Associated Press.
Wolfson, A. (2008, November, 17). Repeat offender law crowds prisons. The Courier-Journal, Front page and A4.
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