US might be considered by some as the height of modern civilization. But its prison system has been denounced as inhuman and antiquated. Now there is a concerted attempt at reforming it.
Interestingly while the country has only 5 percent of the world's population, it accounts for nearly 25 percent of the prison population across the globe. They are incarcerating at a record rate with one in 100 American adults now locked up, 2.3 million, overall.
The U.S. currently spends $45 billion a year on prisons, up from $7 billion in 1980. In many states, it costs $40,000 to keep someone in prison for one year-as much as a year's worth of tuition at Harvard University.
A the New York Times editorial
put it, "This country puts too many people behind bars for too long."
Provisions like the Second Chance Act to provide job training, drug treatment, and other re-entry programs, passed with broad bipartisan support in 2008, remain on paper, for no funds have been allocated for the programme.
Unfazed, Democratic senator from Virginia, James Henry Webb Jr., is initiating a nationwide campaign to change it all.
As a journalist, Webb wrote on the need for reform after visiting Japanese prisons and seeing a fundamental fairness and effectiveness that he recognized as lacking in the U.S. criminal justice system. As a Senator he's held hearings which have highlighted racial disparities in sentencing, the staggering costs of incarceration and effective and cost-efficient alternatives, and a futile and racially biased drug policy.
Now Senator Webb is poised to establish a commission with a broad mandate to examine issues like drug treatment, effective parole policy, racial injustice, education for inmates, reentry programs, the myriad of issues intertwined in wasteful, ineffective criminal justice policies.
He said recently, "I feel very strongly about the need to put the right people behind bars. But we're locking up the wrong people too often all across our country. Mental illness isn't a crime. Addiction isn't a crime. We need to make sharp distinctions between violent offenders and people who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, drug abuse and mental illness. We must raise public awareness about the need for criminal justice reform and find viable solutions. My staff and I are finalizing proposed legislation that could be introduced in the next two weeks to establish a national commission that will take a comprehensive look at where our criminal justice system is broken and how we can fix it."
One legislative reform effort is occurring in Senator Webb's own Virginia, a state that abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in number of executions. This session, a bill will be taken up that would allow prison officials to release non-violent offenders 90 days before their sentences are up. This would primarily be achieved by offering drug treatment programs at the beginning of an individual's incarceration rather than only at the end. Upon successful completion of the treatment program these individuals would be eligible for early release. The legislation also provides for more non-violent offenders to be sent to community-based programs or be monitored electronically rather than incarcerated.
A similar program was undertaken in Washington state and a four-year study of 2,600 inmates released early showed significant cost savings and no negative consequences in terms of recidivism.
Other states taking action on criminal justice reform include: Michigan which is addressing re-entry issues and shifting resources to parole officers and community-based programs; Kansas cut parole revocations by 50 percent in a two-year period by increasing oversight of parole officers and using alternatives to incarceration such as increased drug testing and electronic monitoring; California issued a court ruling this week that the state must address its failure to provide adequate health and medical services in prisons by reducing the population by a third, nearly 55,000 persons, through "shortening sentences, diverting nonviolent felons to county programs, giving inmates good behavior credits toward early release, and reforming parole."
In a step that Democrats hope will lay the groundwork for the most significant overhaul of the state's drug penalties in a generation, a state commission in New York has recommended creating more uniform sentencing guidelines and allowing judges to send more drug offenders to treatment centers instead of prison.
After working for two years, Commission on Sentencing Reform recommended creating uniform standards for determining which offenders are drug-addicted and allowing judges greater authority to select treatment instead of mandatory incarceration. Currently, judges are highly limited in the kinds of sentences they can give drug offenders.
This could be the beginning of the end of the Rockfeller-era drug laws, dubbed wasteful, ineffective and unjust.
Current policies in the country tend to treat a low-level user of crack the same as a major drug dealer, or five grams of crack the same as 500 grams of powder, say campaigners.
With Senator Webb's commission, we can begin the process of transforming our criminal justice system so that prisons are reserved for violent offenders and other vital resources are used to support alternatives like drug treatment, effective parole policies, education, and reentry programs, writes Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, writes on AlerNet.