I caught an interesting piece on All Things Considered this afternoon about sentencing reform. Over the last couple of decades tough-on-crime politicians pushed for harsher sentences for non-violent offenders. As a result of the misguided war on drugs, jails around the country have been packed to the gills.
As a result of overcrowding, conservative politicians have been trying to find ways to reduce jail politicians. Restrictions on parole have been eased. Mandatory minimum sentences have been eliminated. Counties are giving more credit for every day an inmate sits in jail.
The problem is the result of simple-minded "solutions" to problems that didn't exist. People sitting in jail and prison for possession of drugs doesn't solve any problem - it only creates more. Addicts and users need treatment, not jail or prison. Incarceration should be a last resort for offenders, not a first option.
Instead we use our jail and prison systems to segregate the population. While we know that whites, blacks and Hispanics all use drugs in pretty much the same proportion, it's the non-white folks that end up with long sentences behind bars. While well-to-do whites are snorting cocaine in clubs and at parties, black and Hispanic youth are being busted for possession of crack.
Law enforcement officials and prosecutors have fought efforts to reduce penalties for possession tooth and nail. They continue to fight common sense measures to reduce jail and prison populations because they are afraid of giving up the leverage they have over those charged with possession. It's far easier to obtain a guilty plea when a defendant has a choice of a few months in the county jail or a longer stretch in prison.
And who cares about the aftermath of a long prison sentence. Neither the judge, nor the prosecutor nor the arresting officer are going to have to deal with the problems a family faces when the breadwinner is taken away in chains. But you can bet that someone will have to deal with the consequences down the road.
We all know that it's far easier to treat the symptoms of a problem that to address the actual problem itself. Why bother trying to get to the heart of why so many young people use drugs when you can just bring them before a judge on the chain and coerce plea after plea?
The cost of providing treatment for those addicted to drugs would be far less than the amount we currently pay to house them in jails and prisons. Wouldn't our money be better spent on trying to help people get off drugs rather than warehousing them in correctional facilities? Wouldn't it be better for them to be working in productive jobs rather than sitting behind bars? If our wingnut politicians are so concerned about "family values," wouldn't it be better to keep families together rather than tearing them apart?
But then, as I've said many times before, those folks accused of crimes, and those serving time behind bars, don't have a powerful political lobby. Politicians aren't looking for their votes. And that's the calculus that drives policy -- what can I do today that will increase the number of votes I can get and reduce the number of votes my opponent can get?
In the meantime the wheels will keep on turning and nothing will change.