Us against the world
December 9, 2010
By Kenneth E. Hartman
American exceptionalism is at the core of how we view ourselves as a nation. We take great pride in our sense of standing astride the contours of history, boasting of our unique story. We like to see ourselves as against what is wrong with everyone, everywhere else. In the area of criminal justice we clearly do stand apart, and we are, indeed, opposed to the rest of the world, but for all the wrong reasons. Our unique story is of imprisoning more of our citizens, for longer periods of time, in harsher conditions, than virtually anywhere else.
Unlike all the other western industrialized democracies, this country still employs the death penalty. (United Nations)
We conduct more state sanctioned executions than any other country save, possibly, China. (Human Rights Watch)
We less than five percent of the world's population, our vast archipelago of prisons and jails (many of which operate for the express purpose of profit) hold fully 25 percent of the world's prisoners. (Human Rights Watch)
Even though a divided U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that juveniles shouldn't be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes that didn't result in a death, we still use this "other" death penalty more than all the rest of the world combined. (The Sentencing Project)
In fact, in all the rest of the world there were 12 prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles, a number that is now probably zero due to United Nations pressure. In the U.S. there are at least 2,225. (Equal Justice Initiative)
Worse, there are 72 prisoners in this country serving life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed at the age of 13 or 14. There is not a single prisoner in any other country in a similar situation. (Equal Justice Initiative)
According to a recent Pew Center on the States report, one out of every 31 adults in this country is under some form of criminal justice system control. As Senator James Webb of Virginia wrote, we are either a particularly evil nation or something is terribly wrong with our system of justice. (Parade Magazine; March 23, 2009)
I'm a prisoner with more than 30 years served of a life without the possibility of parole sentence for killing a man in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight when I was 19 years old. I'm a direct witness to the irrational expansion of incarceration in this country. It's obvious to me what happened to spark this unprecedented mass imprisonment, as it's equally obvious to every serious observer without an axe to grind on the cell bars.
A political movement grew out of the urban unrest of the "60s and "70s in response to the fears of the white middle class. "Tough on crime" politicians capitalized on this by passing ever--harsher laws to sate demands for perceived safety. Throughout the late "70s, and all of the "80s and "90s, a massive infrastructure was erected to imprison the growing numbers of newly fabricated lawbreakers. Government employee unions of guards and others working inside the prisons supported politicians friendly to further expansion of the vast prison- industrial complex. Corporations with vested interests in the continuing growth of the prison system invested heavily in politicians driving the "tough on crime" bandwagon. And all of these groups cynically paid for crime victims' lobbying organizations that never saw a law too tough or a prison too overcrowded.
All along, the rest of the world looked at our criminal justice policies as symptoms of a form of madness. American criminologists advocating "lock "em up and throw away the key" practices were, and still are, openly derided by their European colleagues. No other country in the world implemented policies as harsh, as punitive, or as wholesale but for our lone ally in this arena: The People's Republic of China.
The Great Recession has forced government at all levels to rethink priorities. School programs, libraries, fire and police services, and parks are all facing substantial and painful cutbacks. Even prison systems are being compelled to contemplate scaling back the rate of growth that's led to the mass imprisonment of so many Americans. Of course, the special interests that have profited off of the unsustainable (and unjustifiable) rate of incarceration are howling in protest. It's a sad spectacle, as supposed public servants use scare tactics, distort the truth, and employ every dirty political trick in the book to protect their own hides at the expense of the public they ostensibly serve.
It is time to undo the current practice of punishment and revenge, and replace it with pragmatic, fair--minded justice.
First time, nonviolent offenders should be released, now.
Simple drug users and small time property offenders should be released, now.
Old men and women who pose no realistic threat to society should be released, now.
All forms of the death penalty, including life without the possibility of parole ---" death by incarceration ---" should be abolished, now.
The many billions of dollars saved should be reinvested into proven preventative programs, as soon as possible.
Now, that would be truly (albeit ironically) exceptional, at least in the mirror of our own estimation.
Author's Bio: Kenneth E. Hartman has served 30 continuous years in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence. He is the author of "Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars," a memoir of life in prison, published by Atlas & Co. (New York, 2009), and is an award winning writer and prison reform activist. Ken was instrumental in the founding of the Honor Program at the California State Prison--Los Angeles County, and is currently leading a grassroots organizing campaign, conducted by LWOP prisoners, with the goal of abolishing the other death penalty.
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