#375 Get-Tough Policies Cause More Crime

Date: Sun, 13 Jul 2008
Subject: #375 Get-Tough Policies Cause More Crime


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DrugSense FOCUS Alert #375 – Sunday, 11 July 2008

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Contact: letters@freepress.com

Pubdate: Sun, 13 Jul 2008
Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)
Copyright: 2008 Detroit Free Press


U.S. taxpayers spend at least $60 billion a year on a growing body of
state and federal prisons, county jails and local lockups. With jail
and prison populations that have increased nearly eightfold over the
past 35 years, the United States has become the world’s leading jailer.

More than one in every 100 U.S. adults is locked up — and 5 million
more are on probation or parole. At any given time, one in 32 adults
is under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

Tough-on-crime policies, not increases in crime, are mostly
responsible. Mandatory drug sentences, three-strike and so-called
truth-in-sentencing laws, as well as high recidivism rates, have
created our Incarceration Nation. Even so, violent crime rates are
higher than when the nation’s prison building boom started more than
three decades ago.

It’s time to reverse failed sentencing policies, restore certain
social and legal rights for ex-felons, and slow the revolving doors of
the penal system with better re-entry, education and training
programs. Fully funding the Second Chance Act, which provides money
for state and federal re-entry programs, would keep more ex-inmates
out of prison.

Criminal justice reforms are critical to the health of the nation’s
cities, and they must become part of the next president’s urban
agenda. Most of the more than 600,000 people a year leaving U.S.
prisons and jails return to disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. They go
home poorly educated, lacking job skills, and socially and legally
disabled by felony records.

Going to prison has become a norm in certain big-city neighborhoods,
even a rite of passage. While mass incarceration has aimed to reduce
crime, it has actually increased it by breaking up social networks and
removing financial and emotional support from families and
communities. Nearly half of the 2.3 million adults locked up are
African Americans, who make up less than 13% of the U.S. population. A
stunning one in nine black males between the ages of 20-34 is behind

Felony convictions, whether or not they carried prison sentences,
attach lifetime penalities to tens of millions of Americans. Roughly
1.8 million people in Michigan, for example, have criminal records, or
nearly one in four adults. Most are felony offenders, with all that
entails for future prospects. These staggering statistics hold true
for the nation as a whole, with more than 55 million people with
criminal records.

Kansas Sets an Example

Nationwide, nearly two of three offenders who get out of prison go
back. Reducing recidivism is one of the best, and least controversial,
ways to lower the prison population. With bipartisan support, many
states are developing programs to help released inmates find jobs,
housing and treatment. Such efforts have helped Kansas become one of
the few states to lower prison populations, from a high of 9,181 in
2004 to 8,671 today.

Low-risk offenders in Kansas who violate parole conditions are no
longer automatically sent back to prison. Instead, many are supervised
and assisted in the community at a fraction of the cost.

Carlis Rogers, 23, was released in December, after serving 2 1/2 years
on a drug possession charge. During a traffic stop in January, a
police officer discovered a small amount of cocaine in the glove
compartment of a car he was driving but didn’t own. Rogers said he
didn’t know the drugs were there, but the incident would have, five
years ago, resulted in revocation.

Instead, Rogers was assigned in February to a day reporting center in
Wichita, one of two such programs in Kansas run under contract by
Colorado-based BI Inc. The centers, supervising 140 offenders at a
time, are part of a successful effort by the Kansas Department of
Corrections to keep low-risk offenders in the community, despite
parole violations.

Parolees like Rogers are assigned to the reporting centers for six to
nine months. The intense supervision includes curfews, electronic GPS
monitoring, mandatory reporting three to six days a week, random drug
tests, community service projects, group therapy sessions, and help
with substance abuse, mental health and employment problems. Most
offenders also work or attend school full-time.

“If you come into this with an open mind, you can really get something
out of it,” Rogers said after a group session on critical thinking.

The center helped Rogers get enrolled in a local community college and
line up financial aid. He’s taking a 12-week aero structure technician
course in sheet metal work. After he earns a certificate this month,
he’ll make about $15 an hour in Wichita’s thriving aircraft industry.

Even more important, Rogers is learning to think about his decisions.
“I can choose to do something to go back to prison or not,” he said.

New Ways of Thinking

In Kansas, more offenders are choosing to stay out of

Five years ago, an average of 203 parolees were sent back to prison
each month. By last year, the number dropped to 103 a month — and the
improvement was not due to lax enforcement. The number of absconders
and parolees with convictions for new crimes has also dropped. “People
posing significant risk to the community still go back to prison,”
said Kent Sisson, a regional parole director. “But we think that,
historically, a lot of folks we sent back to prison weren’t posing
that kind of risk.”

Kansas also started re-entry programs two years ago that helped reduce
recidivism from 60% to less than 45%. The number of parolees going
back to prison for parole violations has dropped from 3,100 in 2000 to
less than 1,300 last year.

Twelve to 18 months before they’re released, high-risk inmates meet
with employers, housing providers, social service agencies and medical
providers. They also meet with cognitive specialists that emphasize
personal responsibility and self-control.

The aim is to help inmates on their way out develop new ways of
thinking, as well as line up housing, social services, education and

Kansas has hired a business developer to inform employers about the
advantages of hiring ex-offenders, including federal tax credits. It
also has drug and alcohol specialists who help assess substance abuse
problems and coordinate community treatment, and a housing specialist
to work with landlords who might not otherwise rent to parolees. Too
often, parolees have been virtually forced to return to housing that
puts them near criminal activity.

All parole officers are now trained in so-called motivational
interviewing techniques that help them get inmates to think through
problems, develop goals and make better choices. A few parole officers
derisively called the change “hug a thug,” but most understand that
the new approach works.

The department has set up accountability panels made up of corrections
staff and community members, including ex-inmates, who meet with
offenders upon release and during parole. The panel provides tough
talk, when needed, but also celebrates successes.

“That’s something corrections isn’t known for,” said Sally Frey, a
Kansas re-entry director. “But as human beings, we’re motivated more
by reward than punishment.”

Private Industry Helps

Private industry programs in Kansas also better prepare inmates for
freedom, easing budget problems that would otherwise increase idleness
and jeopardize vocational programs in the state’s eight prisons, said
Rodney Crawford, director of Kansas Correctional Industries.

Nearly 30 companies employ more than 800 inmates — 530 of them in
leased shops and factories inside prisons. Most inmates in private
industry programs make prevailing wages of up to $12 an hour, and all
make at least the federal minimum wage of $5.85 an hour. That compares
to other prison jobs that pay as little as 40 cents a day, and no more
than 60 cents an hour.

Industry jobs inside Kansas prisons include embroidering sportswear,
cut-and-sew leather products and cabinet manufacturing.

The state deducts 25% of the wages for room and board and 5% for
restitution. Another 10% is set aside for a mandatory savings account.
Inmates often leave prison with more than $10,000, which enables them
to secure housing and get a solid start.

For some inmates, private industry jobs start careers.

Scott Whiteman, now 36, started working as a welder at Henke
Manufacturing in Leavenworth eight years ago as a minimum-security
inmate, making snow removal equipment for minimum wage.

When he finished a seven-year stretch for aggravated robbery in 2003,
Whiteman continued working at Henke as a welder, roughly doubling his
pay. He was recently promoted to supervisor over 20 welders, doubling
his pay again.

“Working and keeping up your child support make you feel responsible,”
he said. “When you get out, you want to keep that feeling. The only
way to do it is to keep working.”

For other offenders like Carl Mitchell, 41, with long prison sentences
in front of them, working provides a way to pay for college courses,
support families and sharpen job skills. Convicted of rape, Mitchell
might not get out before 2029.

“This is more like a normal life and it motivates you to be
responsible,” said Mitchell, who earns $6.12 an hour as a finisher in
a garment embroidery and print screen shop run by Impact Design Inc.
The company employs more than 300 inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility.

Tight Budgets Force Solutions

Mass incarceration has created economic and human costs the nation can
no longer afford. Michigan spends $2 billion a year on corrections, or
20% of its general fund. It is one of four states spending more on
corrections than higher education.

Community supervision and treatment, allowing offenders to continue to
support their families, work best for many low-risk and drug offenders
and cost a fraction of the $30,000 a year each prison inmate costs.
Health care costs for some inmates can total hundreds of thousands of
dollars. Severely sick and dying inmates who pose no risk should be

Mandatory sentencing policies, including three strikes laws, have
imposed unreasonably harsh sentences on many nonviolent offenders and
ought to be repealed, as should disparities between crack and powder
cocaine sentencing. States and cities must remove some of the barriers
to employment, housing and education faced by the tens of millions of
people with felony convictions. The good news is that budget pressures
are forcing other states, including Michigan, to take steps to control
their prison populations.

Unacceptably high incarceration rates tear at the nation’s social
fabric and divert money from education, health care, transportation
and other needs. It’s time to build a more rational, cost-effective
and humane criminal justice system.


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