The passage of Oregon Measure 70 demonstrates that voters are still vulnerable those would play on their fears and opt for vengeance rather than restoration without considering their high costs in the present and their guarantee of a greater problem with crime in the future.
WILL THE fiscal collapse that has laid bare gross inequalities in the US economic system lead to meaningful reforms toward a more just society? One answer is suggested by the bursting of what might be called the “other housing bubble,’’ for these two years have also brought to crisis the three-decade-long frenzy of mass imprisonment. If there was a bailout for bankers, can there be one for inmates?
It is commonly observed now that, beginning about 1981, during the Reagan administration, the wealth of a tiny percentage of top-tier earners sky-rocketed, while the wages of the vast majority of Americans went flat. A rapid escalation in the illusory value of homeownership soon followed. But an unseen boom began then, too — in American rates of incarceration, the housing bubble in prisons. A recent issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, lays it out. In 1975, there were fewer than 400,000 people locked up in the United States. By 2000, that had grown to 2 million, and by this year to nearly 2.5 million. As the social scientist Glenn C. Loury points out, with 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States imprisons 25 percent of all humans behind bars. This effectively created a vibrant shadow economy: American spending on the criminal justice system went from $33 billion in 1980 to $216 billion in 2010 — an increase of 660 percent. Criminal justice is the third largest employer in the country.
But while prisons boomed, something else was happening — a trade-off. As sociologist Loic Wacquant says, the government was simultaneously slashing funds for public housing. In the 1990s, as federal corrections budgets increased by $19 billion, money for housing was cut by $17 billion, “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the poor.’’ State budgets took their cues from Washington in a new but unspoken national consensus: poverty itself was criminalized. Although “law and order’’ was taken to be a Republican mantra, this phenomenon was fully bipartisan, as Wacquant shows, with the most ferocious growth in the incarceration of poor people occurring in the Clinton years. “Welfare as we know it’’ was replaced by punishment. States went prison-crazy.
But the current fiscal crisis has blown a hole through all that razor-wire. State budgets suddenly cannot afford prison systems, which universally choke off funds for education, transportation, and infrastructure… [emphasis added]
Inserted from <Boston Globe>
When we take money from education, housing, and infrastructure to pay for runaway incarceration, we are less safe than before, because the help needed to give poor youth a stake in their communities is will not be there, and because of that lack, even more will turn to crime.
I grant you that there are some prisoners who can never be released safely, bit based on what they have done, but based on their unwillingness to change. Fortunately, they are few in number. On the other hand there are prisoners like the ones we work with in the 7th Step Club at Oregon State Penitentiary. They work tirelessly to understand the choices they made that led them into into crime, reform the defects in their thinking that enabled those choices, and develop intervention strategies to prevent recurrence, so they can return to their communities as productive citizens. We are proud to support their efforts.
Sentencing and release policies that do not take into account such individual differences waste money that could be used far more effectively to prevent crime in the first place and to help former prisoners transition.