-- Rabbi Hillel
“We’re using prisons and coercion as a way of substituting for the failures of other institutions in our society — the schools, the fact that we’ve got large concentrations of minorities in the center of the city, and the fact that we’re waging a war or drugs that is really a reflection of deep problems in the society . . .."
-- Professor Glenn Loury, National Academy of Sciences Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration
Failure of U.S. Penal Policy
The Human Costs
The Financial Costs
The Opportunity Costs
Social Costs and Racial Bias
Causes: Unnecessarily Long Prison Terms
Causes: War on Drugs
Follow the Money: The Prison Industrial Complex
Johnson County's Challenge
We have the opportunity because the county wants a $40 million-plus "Justice Center" -- for which read, among other things, more jail cells. (Rejected by the voters once, it will be coming back for another vote.) We have the necessity because what America, and Johnson County, are now doing isn't working. Like our approach to health care, we are spending more and getting less than almost any other country on earth.
As the quote from Professor Loury, above, points out, we are using jails and prisons to serve a variety of purposes and house a variety of people -- to protect the public from those with a propensity to violence that threatens others and themselves; to house those whose primary "crime" is unemployment, homelessness, illiteracy, alcohol and drug addiction, or mental illness; to punish those whose crimes do not involve violence in the past and are likely to do so in the future; those who just need to sober up overnight; and those awaiting trial.
Admittedly, the policy issues and challenges involving federal prisons differ in some respects from those involving city and county jails. But what all have in common is use of the one-size-fits-all option of incarceration, building more prisons and jail cells, spending more than we need to spend, in return for less than we -- and those locked up -- need and deserve. Creative, alternative approaches anywhere within this system can help encourage better practices elsewhere.
The statistics are stark.
America leads the world in the percentage of its citizens who are incarcerated -- 743 or more per 100,000. This is a rate six times that of our otherwise comparable neighbor to the north (Canada, at 117 per 100,000, is 123rd in the world), and Communist China, at 120 per 100,000. (Japan -- which also has a zero tolerance policy toward illegal drugs -- is 59 per 100,000.) The rates are even higher in some states; Louisiana imprisons something between 800 and 1500 per 100,000. (Others put Louisiana's numbers at 1,619 per 100,000. Maine, by contrast, is closer to 150 -- one-tenth that of Louisiana.)
That's right. "We're Number One! We're Number One!" But it's nothing to brag about. Are Americans really six times more criminal than people living in comparable countries or China -- let alone those subject to some of the world's most repressive dictators? What explanations are there for these gross disparities?
Whatever the reasons, the response needs to be a variation of the bumper sticker, "Whatever is the question, war is not the answer." "Whatever is the question, additional prisons are not the answer." We've tried that. We're already "Number One!"
Johnson County citizens and public officials now have the opportunity to set a new path, an example for the nation -- a major new direction in our approach to the populations we're now housing in jails and prisons all across this country.
Make no mistake, I sure give Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek credit for trying to promote the alternatives. Nicholas Johnson, "Shooting Our Messengers," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 3, 2006 ("we're lucky Pulkrabek has the smarts and political courage he does. His increased use of electronic monitoring saved the county 882 jail days. Mental health and substance diversion programs also help."). But he can't do it alone.
Some county, some time, has to draw a line in the sand and say, "Enough. No more jail cells." Will it be tough? You bet. But as the opening quote from Rabbi Hillel put it, "If not now, when? If not us, who?" So long as there is always the option of just building more jail cells and prisons there's a radically reduced incentive, let alone pressure, to innovate and improve how we handle those now living there.
The human costs of our misallocation of priorities and resources is our greatest loss. The mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts who need and would benefit from treatment, do not receive it and are housed in prisons. The first offenders who once had a chance at rehabilitation, now come out as hardened criminals. The non-violent offenders who could be making a contribution to society are spending decades locked up. Prisons are the rug under which we sweep these folks, as well as many who are homeless, unemployed, or illiterate.
Those are the greatest costs. But the financial impact of this, our largest public housing program, is far from chump change. At well over $60 billion a year, it approaches the size of the recently feared "sequester." Indeed, at our present costs of roughly $25,000-to-$50,000 per inmate per year ["The cost of a nation of incarceration," CBS Sunday Morning, April 22, 2012], we could be putting these two-million-plus inmates through college for what we're spending to keep them locked up. (There are a near quarter-million in federal prisons, near-million in state prisons, and million-plus in county and local jails -- for a 2.3 million total, which, with our 5% of the world's population is 25% of the world's inmates. If you count those on probation or parole the numbers are three times that.) In fact, given our trends to longer sentences, if these inmates could finish college in four or five years we'd save billions by sending them to school rather than to prison. And we could use the $5 billion or more we spend building new prisons on schools. (In Costa Rica I visited a former prison that had been converted into a children's museum.) And see "The Price of Prisons; What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers," Public Safety Performance Project, The Pew Charitable Trusts' State and Consumer Initiatives, March 20, 2012 (with a link to the full report of the additional costs of the jail and prison system that are often not reported).
Then there's what we call "opportunity cost" (one expenditure may eliminate the opportunity to do something else with the money). You can build schools, or you can build prisons, but you can't build both. We seem to be living that truth here in Johnson County, with a postponed proposal for a $40 million high school and a $40 million defeated "Justice Center" proposal.
Of course, I'm not seriously suggesting we empty the prisons and fill the college dorms with criminals. But expenditures on the two institutions -- education and incarceration -- are not unrelated. The more of that $60 billion we would allocate to educating our youngsters on the front end of life, the less we would need to spend on prisons during the back end of life. (As the bumper sticker has it, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.")
The numbers and percentages vary somewhat, based on source and year, but it is not an exaggeration to say that almost all of those we lock up were convicted of non-violent crimes (roughly 50% of those in state prisons and 91% in federal; individuals probably not likely to be a physical danger to society), or did not graduate from high school, or are suffering from some form of mental illness, or from addiction to alcohol or other drugs, or all of the above.
In short, as Dr. Glenn Loury puts it in the quote that heads this blog entry, "“We’re using prisons and coercion as a way of substituting for the failures of other institutions in our society . . .."
There's another failure in our society that is reflected in the fact that the U.S. "imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid." Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), p. 7. ("United States Incarceration Rate," n. 17, Wikipedia.org. African Americans are imprisoned at a rate over six times that for whites. (In 2010 this was 4347 per 100,000 of the same race and gender for African Americans, and 678 for white males.) Alexander also notes that "there are more African Americans under correctional control -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began." And see, Alfredo Parrish, "Iowa View: State needs to face up to prison disparities,", Des Moines Register, February 9, 2013.
One of the reasons we have such a disproportionate number of our citizens in prison is the length the sentences. The mandatory federal court sentence for a first-time drug offender is five to ten years. In the rest of the industrialized world the sentence would more likely be something like six months. Our "three-strikes-you're out" laws (actually, "three strikes you're in") in many states require a 25 year sentence. The average sentence for burglary in the U.S. is sixteen months; in Canada 5 months, in England 7. "
[From 1990 to 2009] drug offenders served 36 percent longer in 2009 than those released in 1990 . . .. Almost all states increased length of stay over the last two decades . . .. In Florida, for example, where time served rose most rapidly, prison terms grew by 166 percent and cost an extra $1.4 billion in 2009. A companion analysis . . . found that many non-violent offenders in Florida, Maryland and Michigan could have served significantly shorter prison terms with little or no public safety consequences."Time Served; The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms," Public Safety Performance Project, The Pew Charitable Trusts' State and Consumer Initiatives, June 6, 2012.
Our so-called "War on Drugs," which has even less to show for its efforts than our War on Afghanistan, has accelerated imprisonment for drug offenses from 40,000 in 1981 to roughly 500,000 in 2010 -- the cause of about two-thirds of the increase in federal prisons since 1985.
When the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were investigating the Watergate story, the source they dubbed "Deep Throat" advised them, "Follow the money." It may be good advice on the prison story as well.
Are there individuals who are personally profiting from locking up the mentally ill and addicts, increasing both the numbers in prison and the length of sentences for non-violent offenders? You bet there are: those who contract to reduce their labor costs by using prison labor, construction companies building the prisons, those who sell the furniture, transportation, food, clothes and medical services for prisons. This is sometimes characterized as "the prison-industrial complex," defined by Eric Schlosser as "a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need." "Prison-industrial_complex," Wikipedia.org.
And let us not forget the prisons-for-profit industry, and the sheriffs who make extra money with payments from the state for housing prisoners -- as in Louisiana. The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a very thorough and well-researched eight-part series a year ago on the problems within Louisiana's prison operations that make up much of the driving force behind their highest rate of incarceration in the U.S. Louisiana Incarcerated: How we built the world's prison capital; Sheriffs and politicians have financial incentives to keep people locked up, May 13-20, 2012. Here are some excerpts:
"We realized that prisons are like nursing homes. You need occupancy to be high. You have to . . . run it like a business, watch food costs, employee costs," said [Louisiana's LaSalle Corrections' executive] Clay McConnell, 37. . . .Cindy Chang, "North Louisiana family is a major force in the state's vast prison industry," The Times-Picayune, May 14, 2012.
More than half of the state's 40,000 inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs or private companies like LaSalle for the express purpose of making a buck. . . .
Prison operators, who depend on the world's highest incarceration rate to survive, are a hidden driver behind the harsh sentencing laws that put so many people away for long periods. . . .
The state spends $182 million a year to house inmates in local prisons. [R]ural sheriffs and private investors reap the benefits . . ..
Annual profits in good years range from about $200,000 for an average-sized operation to as much as $1 million for parishes with several prisons. . . .
In the past decade, LaSalle and the McConnells have donated about $31,000 to campaigns, including $10,000 to Gov. Bobby Jindal and numerous contributions to north Louisiana state legislators. LCS and its owners have thrown much more cash at politicians -- about $120,000 since 1999.
The Louisiana legislature addressed the state's high rates of incarceration with some
"bills aimed at tackling some of the key factors driving the increase, including long sentences for nonviolent crimes and large numbers of offenders being sent back to prison for violations of parole or probation. [But they were passed and signed] only after the most important parts -- the ones that would have actually reduced prison sentences -- were removed under pressure from sheriffs and district attorneys. . . . Louisiana sheriffs now house more than half of inmates serving state time -- by far the nation's highest percentage in local prisons. Their financial stake in the prison system means they will lose money if sentences are shortened."Jan Moller, "Prison sentence reform efforts face tough opposition in the Legislature," The Times-Picayune, May 16, 2012.
It's not like there aren't ideas for reform out there, including many in place. There are. See, e.g., Alfredo Parrish, "Iowa View: State needs to face up to prison disparities,", Des Moines Register, February 9, 2013; "Prison Population," The Pew Charitable Trusts' State and Consumer Initiatives; "Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration," Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Academy of Sciences; "Iowa Prison Population Forecast: FY 2011-2021," Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, Iowa Department of Human Rights, November 18, 2011; "Iowa Prison Reform," Iowa Public Television, January 18, 2008 ("We want the legislature to consider several things before they consider expanding capacity, and some of those things are what we’ve been talking about: the community-based corrections; the drug courts; other alternatives to long-term incarceration, mental health treatment, mental health counseling, and focus on that; as well as education."); and this morning's Orlan Love, "Remote prison camp again on budget chopping block; Supporters: Closing Luster Heights a disservice to state," The Gazette, March 8, 2013, p. A1.
If our beautiful, historic architectural gem of a courthouse needs some renovation, fine. Do it. I'll help pay for it. But let's not confuse that need with the proposed additional jail cells.
Those who see more jail cells in Johnson County as the only solution point out that we're spending something like $1 million a year housing inmates elsewhere. Assume that's true. But doesn't that mean the $40 million-plus they'd spend today (plus possibly increased staffing costs over the years) would be enough to cover the costs of moving and housing our jail inmates elsewhere for another 40 years? Is there not rational hope and possibility that by then America will have come to its senses and, like Costa Rica, have empty prisons and jails converted to other purposes? How many alternative solutions might be funded with that $40 million?
During World War II, the Navy's Construction Battalions (dubbed "Seabees") expressed the pride they had in their creative approaches to problem solving with the motto, "The difficult we'll do right now; the impossible will take a little longer."
Whether coming up with adequate alternative approaches to additional jail cells is "impossible" or merely "difficult," are we really saying that progressive Iowa City, located in the "creative corridor," "city of literature," home of one of the world's great research universities, inventions and entrepreneurial success stories, has no one who is capable of coming up with creative alternatives to expansion of America's "prison-industrial complex"? I certainly hope that won't be our response.