New Prisons or New Schools?

The New York Times had an editorial yesterday on our ever expanding prison population that included the amount we are spending on prisons. It's now up to $60 billion a year.

After a tenfold increase in the nation’s prison population — and a corrections price tag that exceeds $60 billion a year — the states have often been forced to choose between building new prisons or new schools. Worse still, the country has created a growing felon caste, now more than 16 million strong, of felons and ex-felons, who are often driven back to prison by policies that make it impossible for them to find jobs, housing or education.

What's the solution? Use prisons as a sanction of last resort. Let's stop incarcerating the non-dangerous offenders. Let's end mandatory minimum sentences.

Tell Congress to pass the Second Chance Act providing support services to those leaving prison.

The Times offers more good recommendations:

Congress needs to revoke laws that bar inmates from receiving Pell grants and that bar some students with drug convictions from getting other support.

....Congress should repeal the lifetime ban on providing temporary welfare benefits to people with felony drug convictions.

The federal government should strengthen tax credit and bonding programs that encourage employers to hire people with criminal records.

States need to stop barring ex-offenders from jobs because of unrelated crimes — or arrests in the distant past that never led to convictions.

Sage advice, all of it.

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    frightening (none / 0) (#1)
    by cjkinsey on Thu Jan 25, 2007 at 11:21:49 PM EST
    thanks for your work.

    I agree (none / 0) (#2)
    by Deconstructionist on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 08:13:48 AM EST
      We send too many to prison who don't need to go and many who do need to go for far too long, but some of that sounds good until you think about it.

      What is "non-dangerous"? Anyone who won't use physical violence?

    Is the guy who is convicted for the third time of fleecing old folks out of their money with a scam "non-dangerous"? Are politicians  who violate laws and public trust "non-dangerous"? Is the CEO who cooks the books to enrich himself by tens of millions at the expense of shareholders and employees "non-dangerous"? Is the guy selling crack, heroin or methamphtamine "non-dangerous as long as he eschews physical violence?

     People might have different answers to each of those and many others.

      Moreover, if we take drugs out of the equation for a moment and look at the rest of the "criminal universe" would not the "non-dangerous" distinction likely have disparate impact on the the poor, underprivileged and minorities as opposed to the more affluent criminals who can steal in "non-dangerous" ways.

      Sentencing refoem is needed but we need to either say precisely what we mean and analyze that rather than speak in generalities.

       If we mean the federal (and certain state)  mandatory minimums for drug offenses are punitive out of all proportion to the crime in many instances and should be repealed or at least highly modified, let's make the case.

    Good points (none / 0) (#9)
    by kdog on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 11:09:26 AM EST
    Maybe dangerous vs. non-dangerous isn't the way frame the debate of who gets the chains and a cage treatment....perhaps it better to frame it crime that victimizes vs. victimless crimes.

    A good first step would be to stop jailing people over victimless crimes.

    We also need to decide what we want our prisons to do....punish people or attempt to rehabilitate people.


    $60,000,000,000 a year (none / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 08:42:01 AM EST
    ain't chicken feed! that amount makes prison one of the largest single industries in the country. this means there are 1,000's willing to fight, vigorously, for its continued existence and growth. lots of jobs, and many towns, depend on this industry, it won't go down without a massive fight.

    decon raises an interesting point: what is a "non-dangerous offender"? strictly one who doesn't use physical violence, in the commission of a crime? gee, i suspect the 1,000's of people defrauded by enron executives might consider them "dangerous". yet, they were not physically violent in the commission of their crimes.

    this raises the legitimate question of equity: a mugger, who might actually only affect very few people, faces the very real risk of a lifetime sentence, while an insider trader, who potentially affects 1,000's, might face only a short sentence and maybe a fine. is this fair?

    bingo (none / 0) (#7)
    by smiley on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 10:29:10 AM EST
    the businesses which support the prison industry -laundry, food service, construction, Blackwater- all have a profit motive to grow the prison population as large as possible.  Until we can remove that profit motive, the consideration of what is best for society takes a back seat to making money.  

    And worry about the prisoners?  Well, shucks.  If they aren't criminals, they wouldn't be in jail, right?


    Replace incarceration with supervision? (none / 0) (#4)
    by JSN on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 08:51:45 AM EST
    My dream is to attend a ceremony where a prison is closed because it is no longer needed but I do not expect that that will happen in my lifetime.

    Supervision is an alternative to prison for some types of offenders. Most community based correction systems use risk assessment instruments to select clients that are likely to successfully complete their sentence. But there is problem of the nasty surprise because risk assessment is not perfect. The destructive potential of a nasty surprise is very large (in the worst case it could end community based correction). In some States the uproar over nasty surprises has resulted in the end of parole.

    Use of supervision and adding more rigorous supervision to the current mix would be step in the right direction but there are certain offenders who should remain incarcerated.

    Let's build more prisons than schools (none / 0) (#5)
    by peacrevol on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 09:25:50 AM EST
    We should build as many prisons as we can. That way we will have a place to put 18 year old high school graduates and drop-outs after they leave the overcrowded, understaffed, minimally financed, filthy, old, intermediate level high schools that we have out there.


    We could make the prison population get their a$$ to work developing the materials and building schools for our youth. Cheaper schools for our kiddos & the offenders get a chance to learn a craft for when they get out. If we're going to lock up everybody for a manditory period of time, we should let them help us accomplish the goals of society.

    *Sarcasm included in the first paragraph but not the second***

    Britain's solution (none / 0) (#6)
    by Sailor on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 10:04:30 AM EST
    Public to be sold shares in new prisons

    The idea has been floated in an attempt to overcome the refusal of the chancellor, Gordon Brown, to find the extra money needed for 8,000 new prison places at a time when the service is at breaking point.

    Could there be time share plan for returnees? nt (none / 0) (#10)
    by JSN on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 11:40:55 AM EST
    How about better schools? (none / 0) (#8)
    by Slado on Fri Jan 26, 2007 at 10:59:58 AM EST
    These seems like a bad question.   Should we spend less money on prisons?  Maybe.   But whenever people don't like spending money on something they drag out the school system because for some we can never spend enough on schools.   As if we don't already poor too much into our school systems when we don't address the real problems.

    Mainly that we should be asking that our schools aren't beholden to the teachers unions?

    How about schools that aren't run by corrupt local school boards?

    How about schools that don't spend millions of dollars on new football stadiums, pools and gyms?

    Money is not the answer.   Schools need to become schools again and not a social safety nets for bad parents.

    Good points (none / 0) (#12)
    by peacrevol on Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 09:03:01 AM EST
    You make some good points. I agree most that
    Schools need to become schools again and not a social safety nets for bad parents.

    I think that possibly where we're spending the money incorrectly is in the qualifications for our teachers. For example, when a teacher gets out of college, they have to go through the process of obtaining a teacher's certificate. Effectively, if Albert Einstein walked into your local high school, he would not be qualified to teach there. Of course he would probably not want to because he would be paid in peanuts. If we're going to expect to be teaching our children with the most brilliant people we have, maybe we should offer a little more compensation so that we're not relying mostly on the goodness of those willing to share knowledge and not worry about money.

    Also, at the same time, you cant teach somebody that doesnt want to learn. We should be putting more emphasis on making learning something that the little bitty kids enjoy. Giving them more work is just making them loath the whole experience more, closing their minds to the learning experience. Perhaps part of the education they get at primary and middle school should be more about trying to get the kids motivated and teaching them what an education means to their futures.


    By the numbers again, Slado (none / 0) (#11)
    by jondee on Sat Jan 27, 2007 at 09:32:32 AM EST
    Whats wrong with social safety nets? Thats what prisons are and this trillion dollar, murderous catastrophe that Rush and Sean tell you never to question. That is, until a movement starts to unionize the military.

    The upshot is, it's okay to "throw money at" some problems but not other problems.