Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Avoiding the real problem in the Texas prison system

brunch [brʌntʃ] n
a meal eaten late in the morning, combining breakfast with lunch
[from br(eakfast) + (l)unch]
Beginning this past April, Texas prison officials stopped serving lunches on weekends to some 23,000 inmates in 36 prisons. Inmates at those prisons eat "brunch" between 5am and 7am and dinner between 4pm and 6:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Officials have also replaced milk cartons with powered milk in a bid to save another $3.5 million.

Now I could spend a few words harping on how Texas prison officials have no clue what brunch is. I don't think there are people lining up outside Le Peep at 5am to grab a table for Sunday brunch. From our friends at Wikipedia:
A meal is not usually considered brunch if it is started before 11 am; such meals would still be considered breakfast. Typically brunch is had between 11 am and 1 pm, close to lunch time but still before. Brunch is usually eaten in the late morning.
Of course calling it brunch makes it sound like it's not so bad to cut out a meal twice a week. After all, it's "brunch." Such an easy-going sound. I have little doubt it's not as cheery as sitting out on the back patio The Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter eating waffles while the birds fly overhead.

The ostensible purpose of the policy is to reduce the cost to taxpayers of housing over 165,000 inmates at facilities across the state. But instead of making life worse for inmates, why not find a way to reduce the number of people incarcerated across the state? I know, logic - it's not the currency of the realm in Austin.

We can start by taking a more critical look at the ways in which the state enhances criminal acts. It is absurd to send someone to prison for committing an offense that is but a misdemeanor. But that's exactly what we do with theft cases. We enhance a misdemeanor theft to a state jail felony theft - and then, to felony theft. Yes, petty theft is annoying. But should we be sending someone to prison just because they continue to shoplift?

The state needs to come to the realization that prison is not nearly as effective at controlling addictive behavior as counseling. There are far too many folks behind bars for possessing small quantities of drugs. It makes no sense. I have yet to have anyone explain to me how society benefits by incarcerating a crack addict for 10 years.

Next let's get rid of the so-called "Three Strikes" enhancement laws. I get it. The public is frustrated by folks who commit a crime, go to prison, get released and commit another crime. But let's think about proportionality for a second. It makes no sense to sentence someone to life for an offense that, by itself, would net someone no more than 10 years.

Finally, we need to think about the efficacy of imprisoning people who have passed into middle age. The cost of incarcerating people in their later years is drastically higher than for younger inmates. We need to take a closer look at the actual recidivism rates for older inmates and for inmates who have served 10 years of more. Studies have indicated that most violent crimes are committed by people under the age of 30 and that people in their 40's and 50's are far less likely to commit violent crimes.

But, as I have stated before, folks behind bars don't vote and so they are easy targets for politicians looking to score points with voters. Cutting meals for inmates makes for a good soundbite, but if we really want to solve the problem, we have to get beyond soundbites and take a more critical look at the way our criminal (in)justice system works (or doesn't).

See also:

"Bubble in expanding life sentences, LWOP driving TCDJ health costs for older inmates," Grits for Breakfast (Oct. 24, 2011)

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