Monday, August 12, 2013

Attorney General Holder's Lessons for Johnson County

August 12, 2013, 8:10 a.m.

“[T]too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason . . .. [W]idespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels . . . imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

-- U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., American Bar Association annual meeting, San Francisco, August 12, 2013; Charlie Savage, "Justice Dept. Seeks to Curtail Stiff Drug Sentences," New York Times, August 12, 2013, p. A1.

Since 1980 the U.S. population has increased by 33%; the prison population by 800%. With 5% of the world's population we have 25% of the world's incarcerated prisoners. Half of those in federal prisons are there for drug offenses. [Photo credit:]

Holder recognizes that building more prison cells makes no sense -- economically, criminalogically, or morally.

As the Johnson County, Iowa, Board of Supervisors, reconsiders the strategy -- and hopefully substance -- of its approach to its criminal system (building more jail cells in a "Justice Center"), it could do worse than follow the lead of Attorney General Eric Holder.

Especially is this so, given Charlie Savage's report in this morning's Times (linked above) that Holder's "liberal" reforms have been supported by the likes of Republicans Jeb Bush, Edwin R. Meese III, and Newt Gingrich, in their "conservative case for reform." They've been adopted in Arkansas and Texas, with resulting savings of "hundreds of millions of dollars." Last year alone Texas cut its prison population by 5,000; Arkansas by 1,400; Kentucky is on track to move out 3,000 inmates. "[S]tate-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population – including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year," Holder said. "From Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio, to Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and far beyond – reinvestment and serious reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources. Let me be clear: these measures have not compromised public safety. In fact, many states have seen drops in recidivism rates at the same time their prison populations were declining."

Of course, all agree they are only talking about inmates who pose no threat of violence to others. Drug users who are non-violent, and not members of gangs or dealing cartels.

Savage cites two examples of reforms from Holder's speech: "increase the use of drug-treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration, and expand a program of 'compassionate release' for 'elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.'” There are many more. When the full text of Holder's speech is available, a link will be provided from this blog essay. Here it is: "Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association's House of Delegates,"San Francisco, Monday, August 12, 2013. [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

[Video credit: Produced by AFP (L'Agence France-Presse, Paris), powered by Newslook, provided by Des Moines Register.]

Essentially, Holder and the conservatives are focusing on the factors that have caused our excessive incarceration rates, with their adverse economic and other consequences. It's not rocket science. We can reconsider, and reduce, the number of non-violent human behaviors now legislated as "crimes;" have more lax law enforcement of such laws still on the books, focusing law enforcement efforts on the most serious and violent crimes; prosecute fewer of those arrested; speed the process for those booked and awaiting court proceedings; punish with alternatives to incarceration, such as drug and mental health courts, monitoring with ankle bracelets, community service; shorten the terms of those who are imprisoned; and "compassionate release" of the harmless elderly.

During a time of partisan bickering over seemingly everything, these reforms are something Democrats and Republicans, red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, Libertarians and Greens, can all agree on.

I'd like to see Johnson County -- and Iowa -- be even more progressive and innovative with its penal policies. But at a minimum, can't we at least aspire to be the equal of Texas and the "conservative case for reform"?

So has Holder outlined a recipe for Johnson County, the details along our path to the rational reforms that will reduce our jail population? Of course not. As the nation's Attorney General he needs to have a little broader focus -- although many of his proposals are directly and specifically applicable to us.

What Holder definitely can teach us is a much more universally applicable lesson. It is his willingness to "take it from the top," to put "everything on the table" and explore best practices (whether from other states, or nations), to use "the literature" and experience of others, to apply the analytical intellectual ability and willingness to see that our "prison problem" is not that we have too few cells but that we unnecessarily have too many prisoners, to say with one of his predecessors "Some see things as they are and ask 'why'? I dream of things that never were and ask 'why not'?" The fact that he can't pass laws, he has to get Congress to do that, was treated not as an impenetrable barrier, a reason to always say "No" to innovation, but rather as just a challenge, a reason to search for alternative ways up the mountain. As the SeaBees' motto had it during World War II, "The difficult we'll do right now, the impossible will take a little longer."

Like the U.S. Attorney General, our Johnson County Supervisors, County Attorney, and Sheriff don't have infinite flexibility to change things either. Some County reforms will require action by Congress or the Iowa Legislature. Some will require consensus building among the City Councils and police departments within Johnson County, as well as the University of Iowa.

But we can model our approach on his.

Thankfully, an early effort of the Supervisors and County Attorney to produce such a document already exists. "Jail Alternatives: Prevention, Diversion, Expediting, and Recidivism Reduction Efforts," April 2013. It deserves further research, imagination, organization, and presentation -- exploring best practices from countries with both less crime and less incarceration than the U.S., as well as other American states and counties. A document focused solely on what's being done, and will be done, to reduce the jail population, a document stripped of defensive language or arguments addressed to a specific structure and its location (which could be laid out in other documents if the proponents think it advantageous to do so). For those reforms beyond the power of the Supervisors to impose unilaterally, they should pledge to make specific and measurable efforts to do what's necessary to bring them about by working with others.

Such a document will have to be, as well as appear to be, a sincere, genuine effort to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals in Johnson County to the bare, essential minimum. Convince the voters that the Supervisors have done absolutely everything in their power to minimize the jail population, and that they are pledged to work with others to do more, and such a document would not only be a monumental contribution to the creation of the best criminal justice system of which we are capable, it might also be just enough to tip the next vote to the necessary 60% approval by the voters.

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mbergal said...

"Thankfully, an early effort of the Supervisors and County Attorney to produce such a document already exists."

What are you referring to? Is there a draft?

Nick said...

mbergal: Thanks for pointing out that omission. The name of the document, and link to it, along with suggestions for its revision, are now inserted at that point in the blog essay. -- Nick