A justice system that is slip sliding away
Our justice system is slip sliding away without so much as a whimper from Attorney General Jeff Sessions or President Donald Trump. The problems of the system are wide and deep, and spread from local to county to state to federal jails, to detention camps for illegal immigrants, to imprisoning those with mental health issues, to holding people in jail who are unable to make bond. In short, we need national resolve, a federal commission, and, most importantly, the will to fix the core problems we face in the criminal justice system in America.
The United States has about 5 percent of the worlds’ population and has 22 percent of the people in jails on the planet. If the U.S. prison population were a city, it would be among the 10 largest in the nation. Our 2.3 million Americans in prison are more than the population of any of our 15 smallest states.
We spend $80 billion a year on our prisons, more than the discretionary budget of the Department of Education. Yes, we spend more for imprisoning Americans than educating children. And those are just the direct costs, not including healthcare, food, prosecutors, legal aid, laundry. Including those related costs raises the annual cost of our prison system to $182 billion annually according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
At the federal level, about half those imprisoned are there for drug crimes, nearly 100,000. At the local level, drug crimes constitute about 20 percent of those in jail. But there are an additional 3.7 million Americans, many with drug convictions, on probation and parole, still under some onerous conditions and the power of the state. The War on Drugs has cost Americas billions upon billions and failed by any measure possible.
The courts contribute to the systemic breakdown with prosecutors seeking perfect conviction rates at any expense of justice, legal aid underfunded beyond reason, thousands of people held before being convicted of anything, and bail bondmen indebting people as their only path out of jail before trial.
Worst still, the sentencing differences for similar crimes often follow the stain of conviction that undermines a work career, with sentences so imbalanced as to escape reason. One judge, in a recent study, imposed prison sentences 57.7 percent of the time. Another judge, dealing with similar crimes, imposed prison less than 35 percent of the time. Probation is handled with the same broad range by judges.
It does not have to be this way. Our badly broken criminal justice system can be repaired.
There are in place examples of success stories in reducing prison populations and recidivism.
In Sweden, as recently as 2014, the country closed four prisons because there were not enough people being imprisoned to keep them open. Likewise, in the Netherlands in 2013, 19 prisons closed because there were not enough convicts to fill them. Five more were scheduled to close last year.
In both countries, the approach to imprisonment has changed from retribution to rehabilitation, and from imprisonment to ankle bracelets that allow non-violent criminals to work and be productive rather than be an expense to the state in prison.
Use of the ankle bracelet alone has reduced the rate of recidivism by half in the Netherlands, while also allowing those convicted to avoid the difficulty of finding employment after prison.
Additionally, both countries have relaxed their drug laws and added additional funding to their drug rehabilitation efforts, discovering that a safety net is less costly than continually encountering the legal system.
Every nation has criminals who cannot be in an open society without posing a danger to the people. And those offenders must always occupy cells that protect us from them. But we can do better in America, we can build a fairer, more humane system that costs less and works better.
Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.