The trend toward long-term imprisonment of nonviolent offenders has made us no safer while ruining countless lives.
The November 9 Supreme Court arguments on whether it is cruel and unusual to impose life in prison without parole on violent juveniles who have not killed anybody understandably got prominent media coverage.
But a far more important imprisonment story gets less attention because it's a running sore that rarely generates dramatic "news." That is our criminal-justice system's incarceration of a staggering 2.3 million people, about half of them for nonviolent crimes, including most of the 500,000 locked up for drug offenses.
Forty percent of these prisoners are black, 20 percent are Hispanic, and most are poor and uneducated. This has had a devastating impact on poor black families and neighborhoods, where it has become the norm for young men -- many of them fathers -- to spend time in prison and emerge bitter, unemployable, and unmarriageable. (These numbers come from studies cited by Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a reform group.)
America imprisons seven times as many people as it did in 1972, several times as many per capita as other Western nations, and many more than any other nation in the world.
Yes, violent criminals should be locked up for long enough to protect the rest of us. But the mass, long-term imprisonment of nonviolent, nondangerous offenders in recent decades and excessive terms for others has made us no safer while ruining countless lives and converting potentially productive citizens into career criminals.
The 13-year-old rapist and the 17-year-old serial robber-burglar who are serving life without parole in two Florida cases inspired impassioned comments from justices with opposing views. But the outcome may not have much impact on these two prisoners or anyone else. Even if the Court strikes down their sentences, the state will be free to resentence them to serve, say, 40 years before being eligible for parole, and thereafter to deny successive parole applications until they die. And even if the Court upholds life without parole, the state will be free in the future to relent and release them.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
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.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009