Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Packed prisons

On Monday, Gary Fields at the Wall Street Journal had yet another excellent piece taking a look at prison issues. This time, he's shedding light on how overflowing prisons are shipping some of their inmates to local jails, which are in turn letting some prisoners out early due to their own overcrowding.
In Oregon, the state legislature, anticipating prison crowding, mandated in 1995 that all state inmates serving sentences of less than a year would be housed in local jails. County officials who are being forced to release prisoners early criticize the state, saying they haven't been given the funds to handle the extra jail population.

In Indiana, more than 12,000 prisoners have been released from the Marion County Jail in the last four years because of overcrowding, including more than 2,600 this year. In Connecticut, where the state corrections department also runs the local jails, officials have released more than 13,000 prisoners judged to pose the least threat to public safety since 2000.

Ultimately the issue has its roots in the contradictory impulses of state voters, who want to put more criminals behind bars but are reluctant to pay higher taxes to build and operate prisons and jails.
Fields's piece alludes to two important points, but doesn't exactly spell them out:

1) As prison and jail populations bulge, state budgets are starting to
strain. This devastating impact on the public's pocketbook could be the catalyst for ending many of the punitive prohibitionist policies associated with the War on Drugs.

2) There is a real need for more re-entry services and programs as more
people come out from behind bars and back into society. If they don't have access to education, housing, jobs, etc, what are they supposed to do besides commit more crimes to survive?

Why not write a letter to the editor (LTE) connecting the dots? LTEs can be sent to
wsj.ltrs@wsj.com.

6 comments:

kaptinemo said...

There's an obvious question I would wager that very few people are asking at all...yet it is at the core of the early releases of non-violent inmates: If they were safe enough to allow them to go early, why were they incarcerated to begin with?

How can it possibly be worth it to a State, any State, no matter how economically flush it may be (and there's damn few that are) to incarcerate someone deemed safe enough to release in this manner? Wasn't the money used to do so wasted from literally the very moment of their arrest? How can this policy rationally be justified, as the release of non-violent offenders is, perforce, a tacit admission that it was unecessary to begin with?

Here we see the pull of the prison/industrial complex at work...which is now at odds with the economic realities facing the States that listened to their 'siren song' in the 1980's and 1990's and began building prison complexes as opposed to schools and hospitals and roads. The bottom is dropping out of the DrugWar cash well, the States are reluctantly making difficult finacial choices, and the P/I complex sees the end of the train tracks for the gravy train approaching, and are getting shriller in their demands for 'their' share of the taxpayer's dollars, the pool of which is contracting along with the economy.

Needless to say, this points directly at the DrugWar, which is much like the proverbial elephant in the living room. Sooner or later, it will become obvious that when the house shrinks, the elephant appears larger, and all those pols who have thus far been 'talking around' the problem will have to publicly point at that elephant and say it has to go.

Anonymous said...

There is more to the prison industry than meets the eye. I suggest everyone read the book "Going Up the River:Travels in a Prison Nation" by Joesphy Hallinan. It's excellent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Excellent post, Tom. In Texas, the US Marshall's service rents about 12,000 county jail beds out of maybe 80,000 total to hold immigration detainees, while several counties are no longer arresting certain low-level offenders because of overcrowding, exacerbated by damaged jail and prison units from Hurricane Rita. I wrote this item recently suggesting a research methodology to prove kaptinemo's thesis that fewer arrests don't harm public safety, if we could get some hotshot young grad student on the project. ;-) Best,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Whoops, I think I got that stat wrong -- it's about 12,000 rented jail beds total, in Texas, with the Marshalls Service the biggest customer. See ya,

kaptinemo said...

Many thanks for the gracious attribution, Pete, but the idea isn't mine. It's just plain, simple logic; if the non-violent prisoners can be let go, why catch 'em, period? It's the morally sick equivalent of trophy fishing.

Such a simple question...whose answer calls the entire rationale of the DrugWar into question. For if 'druggies' should be punished, and their punishment is cut short, is The State not being derelict in its' duties? If the punishment is cut short and the prisoners released, then logically they couldn't have been that much of a 'threat' to begin with. If that is the case, then, at the risk of seeming pedantic, I must ask the question again: Why were they incarcerated to begin with?

Lots of juicy red meat in that question...

kaptinemo said...

Sorry, Scott, had too many windows open; posting at Pete's DrugWarRant simultaneously. My bad.