Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Friday, May 29, 2009

America's Prisons: Is There Hope?

Doc Berman over at Corrections Sentencing altered us to the New York Review of Books review of Dream from the Monster Factory...


America's prison system is in a dire state. Some 2.3 million people in this country are now behind bars, five times more than in 1978. Our incarceration rate is now higher than that of any other country in the world. Many, if not most, inmates probably should not be there. Sixteen percent of the adult prison population suffers from mental illness and should be in treatment; a similar fraction is made up of children under eighteen. Although there is little evidence that blacks are more likely to use drugs than whites, they are six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug-related charges.[1] Of those, most have no history of violence or drug dealing, and were arrested mainly for possession of drugs.[2]

Sexual and other forms of abuse in prison are common, reported by some 20 percent of inmates. These "monster factories," as the lawyer and author Sunny Schwartz calls them, do little to break the cycle of violence in society and may even accelerate it. Roughly two thirds of those released from US jails and prisons end up back inside within three years. Some studies suggest that the experience of imprisonment can be so brutal and humiliating that it actually makes men, in particular, harder and meaner, so that the crimes they commit the next time around are even worse than what got them incarcerated in the first place.[3]

What most studies do find, however, is that violent crime is strongly associated with the activity of illegal drug markets, which tend to thrive in black neighborhoods.[14] A 1988 study of homicide in New York found that 40 percent were associated with drug trade–related disputes, mostly among black men.[15] So while whites and blacks may use drugs with equal frequency, blacks are more likely to be involved in the highly lucrative and dangerous business of packaging, distributing, and marketing them. The drug trade is violent because when disputes arise over prices, turf, or customers, there are no peaceful means of resolving them. Adversaries battle out such conflicts with weapons instead of lawyers. It is probably no coincidence that murder rates doubled during Prohibition in the 1920s, and fell sharply with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. Similarly, murder rates doubled again during the "crack epidemic" in the 1970s and 1980s, when the drug trade became more lucrative and competitive, and more dangerous.[16]

This makes the growing activity of drug cartels from Mexico and other countries particularly threatening.[17] But as the Obama administration acknowledges, it does not help simply to blame the foreign drug traffickers alone. What can American policymakers do to get the drug trade out of black neighborhoods? Policing is important, but severe crackdowns could, like Prohibition, make matters worse.

Policymakers could start by improving schools in black neighborhoods, which suffer severely from underinvestment, overcrowding, class disruption, and high dropout rates. This endangers us all, and should be addressed, because the likelihood of incarceration falls with increasing education, especially for black men. According to one estimate, 23 percent of the discrepancy in black/white incarceration rates could be eliminated if blacks stayed in school as long as whites, and that was in 1980, before the thirty-year surge in black incarceration got underway. An even greater effect was seen with violent crime, such as murder and assault. According to the authors of this study, a one percent increase in the graduation rate could save $1.4 billion that would otherwise be spent keeping these men behind bars.[18]

A high school diploma itself seems to help keep black men out of trouble. The likelihood of incarceration drops fourfold among black high school graduates compared to those who make it only to tenth or eleventh grade.[19] It is unlikely that there is anything special about the twelfth-grade curriculum that would explain this. However, graduation may indicate a relatively positive attitude toward society and toward oneself that is more important for keeping black youths out of trouble than any skill or knowledge acquired in school. Some studies suggest, remarkably, that a diploma may matter more than one's income, or even whether one has a job at all.[20] Prison education programs that allow inmates to earn college degrees have also been associated with a drop in recidivism.[21] Thus the decision of former New York governor George Pataki to end these programs in the mid-1990s may well have had consequences for public safety.