Opinion: Prison Overpopulation
Have you ever missed class before? Ever come home after curfew? Had a friend who maybe wasn’t the best influence on you? Now imagine going to jail for one of those. This concept is neither surprising nor rare to the one in 35 adults or 112,000 people in Pennsylvania who are on probation or parole. In fact, on any given day in the U.S., 95,000 people are incarcerated for a technical violation of their supervision such as those I just mentioned. While certainly negligent or irresponsible, these are everyday blunders that any one of us could make. And these incarcerations based on technical violations of parole or probation alone are costing us, as Pennsylvania taxpayers, about $100 million every year. Being someone who pays taxes here in the Commonwealth and someone who has also seen loved ones struggle through the civil shame of imprisonment, I felt as though I must educate others on what I have learned about the mass incarceration epidemic in the United States. So today I am going to show you how probation and parole in Pennsylvania have turned from systems of productivity to those that prepare people for prison. I am also going to peel back the layers of the criminal justice system and highlight its role in the overpopulation in U.S. prisons, and I will explain how we are literally paying the price for others’ criminal behavior. Last, I will knock down the argument that mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes are fair and effective, and I will refute the claim that reducing the prison population will increase crime.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, of Pennsylvania, 34% of those jailed in Dauphin County are being detained on a supervision-related violation. This does not mean that they were convicted of any crime yet, possibly not ever even being charged with a crime. These people likely violated a condition of their probation or parole by committing an act like I mentioned earlier. For those not familiar with recording artist Meek Mill, he is a Pennsylvania native who found himself in the same unfortunate situation in 2017 while serving a probation term in Philadelphia County. The unjust 2-4 year sentence he received for popping a wheelie during a trip to New York City spurred the international #FreeMeek movement. After his release on bail, he, along with other world-class philanthropists and activists, like 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and Jay-Z, to name a few, came together to launch the REFORM Alliance to educate people about the downfalls of our probation and parole systems and their involvement in the overpopulation of prisons across the country.
So how did this mass prison overpopulation spiral out of control? Well, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, the race to incarcerate began in the 1970s when harsh sentencing laws were enacted in response to increased violent crime. It was then fueled in the ‘80s with the War on Drugs, which specifically targeted poor, working-class neighborhoods. This politically-fueled “war” cracked down on low-level drug offenders—and turned criminal offenses, like possession of marijuana, into serious felonies that held serious time in the clink. Former U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, Jr., believes that mandatory minimum sentencing laws, especially those centered around drug possession and DUI, contribute heavily to mass incarceration. In fact, strict sentencing guidelines and these mandatory minimums account for most of the federal prison system’s incarceration rate: at 226,000 inmates, 40% above its capacity. Congress did pass the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which finally addressed this issue and reduced huge discrepancies in how judges sentence offenders for cocaine possession. If our lawmakers would continue to repeal mandatory minimums and other statutes that impose unreasonably long sentences, they would save U.S. citizens about half a billion dollars.
But what if we could potentially stop those who commit low-level crimes to being incarcerated in the first place? Angela Davis, author of Arbitrary Justice, doesn’t think this is a far cry. You see, district attorneys, those who decide whether or not to charge a person for a crime, have enormous authority to set the tone for their offices and to determine how the prosecutors working under them exercise their discretion in each case. So, by changing their behavior, district attorneys could potentially have a profound impact on lowering incarceration rates without even changing the laws. Many district attorneys have already begun to adopt policies that keep certain low-level offenders out of jail. William Stuntz of Harvard Law School refers to district attorneys as the “real lawmakers” of the criminal justice system, as they have vast leeway in deciding who they want to charge and potentially send to prison.
Just how much is America spending on imprisonment, though? Well, since corrections has been one of the fastest-growing items in most state budgets, only second to Medicaid, simply put, we are spending a lot. You see, here’s what happened: in the wake of the Great Recession in 2009, many states slashed their corrections staffs and cut back their spending on prisons overall, specifically correctional health care and even certain food services for inmates. Judicial budgets also got slashed, and as these contracted, judges became exceptionally aggressive about collecting fines and court fees from the prosecuted, paroled, and probationers. Unfortunately, many newly released individuals did not have the income nor the resources to pay these fines and were back behind bars within days. As a whole, all the people imprisoned in the U.S. cost us about $80 billion dollars annually. Now, lawmakers and Pennsylvania leaders have begun to efficiently use taxpayer resources with the establishment of the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, headed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, but there is still a massive amount of work to be done to keep dollars in our pockets and the prison system in check.
Of course, there are many people who argue that decreasing the prison population will likely fuel a spike in the number of felony crimes committed. While it is true that felony crime has decreased over the past three decades, according to Travis, Bruce, and Redburn, these bear little relationship to one another. A recent study actually showed that as the nation’s incarceration rate decreased by 8%, both violent and property-related crimes also decreased by almost 15%, thus proving that we can continue to downsize our prisons without sparing our safety or increasing crime in the process. Many judges might also argue that mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses are significant and needed, because they show consistency and “fairness” in sentencing. Unfortunately, the judges’ consistencies in sentencing have taken away their ability to tailor sentences to fit individual circumstances, which obviously differ, in every criminal case. This has also showed no curb of drug use itself, as we all have seen play out with the recent opioid epidemic this country faced just two years ago.
So today I discussed the most influential contributors to the mass incarceration crisis in the U.S., including the problems with our probation and parole systems, the harsh sentencing laws enacted during the War on Drugs, the impact of district attorneys’ decisions on prosecuting low-level crimes, and what effect this has had on taxpayers’ wallets. I also revealed to you that decreasing the prison population will likely show no increase in felony crime, and the continued support of mandatory minimum sentences only restrains judges and will not curb drug use. Prison needs to be preserved primarily for those who pose grave threats to our society, and we must reduce the number of people who are sent to prison in the first place. I urge you to join a cause like the REFORM Alliance and keep people just like you from going to prison for non-criminal behavior. Let’s join the fight to rehabilitate, not reincarcerate.