Feds Must Lead the Way in Prison and Sentencing Reform


Despite the popular assumption that incarceration makes our communities safer, the growing evidence is that the opposite is true. Prisons, jails and juvenile facilities are places of extreme violence that spread this contagion of violence rather than contain it.

The new Administration can show leadership by a major reform effort of federal corrections facilities, including the very troubled and increasingly violent Federal Bureau of Prisons, the unconstitutional deportation facilities overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the totally unregulated lockups operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration..

And we must not forget the pledge made by this President to close Guantanamo and other horrible DOD and CIA facilities whose operations are not sufficiently scrutinized by human rights groups.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation on earth. At the end of 2011, one in thirty-three adults were in adult lockups facilities and another 75,000 youth were behind bars. In the first decade of the 21st Century.

Incarceration rates for violent offenders climbed by more than 700 percent (from 95,000 in 2008 to over 715,000 in 2008).

There is no evidence that higher rates of incarceration have produced declines in violent crime rates.

While there is scant scientific evidence on the impact of incarceration on the future violence offending of prisoners, the early data are not encouraging. Our prisons are very violent places, far more than the highest risk neighborhoods.

Victims of prison violence both by staff and other inmates are disproportionately young males, many of whom are persons of color— although as many as 20% of imprisoned women report violent victimization.

Mental illness, physical disabilities and sexual orientation also are risk factors for prison victimization.

Incarceration leads to many adverse psychological impacts including loss of the capacity for judgment hyper-vigilance, distrust, suspicion, social isolation, and withdrawal. Prison life is dominated by a culture that encourages exploitation and extreme racial hostility.

Inmates who return to the community have very high rates of recidivism: more than two thirds are arrested for a serious crime within 36 months of their release. For juveniles, those youth who are imprisoned have much higher offending rates than similar youth who are treated in the community.

Equally troubling, there is evidence that parolees have heightened rates of violence with domestic partners.

One in ten former federal prisoners reported severe violence against women and children after their release. Anger over the pains of imprisonment and poor reentry opportunities is often displaced with anger and violence against family members.

All the evidence points to the conclusion that the incarceration experience creates violence and does not deter it.

The federal government has an important role to play along with states and localities to stem the spread of this epidemic of violence in prisons, jail and juvenile corrections. The passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act was a good first step but much more should be done in terms of training and improved policies.

The Department of Justice has investigated dozens of excessively violent adult and juvenile facilities under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. These efforts should be expanded not weakened.

Funds under the Second Chance Act should be allocated to assist inmates returning home to avoid violence with intimate partners and their children.

Federal leadership is urgently needed to raise public awareness about the deplorable lack of mental health services in adult and juvenile corrections facilities.

Recently, the Supreme Court in Brown vs Plata held that severely crowded prisons compromised issues of basic human dignity including health care and services for disabled inmates. The federal government should expand the role of the National Institute of Corrections to help states and counties find solutions to severe prison crowding.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention needs to rediscover its historic mission to get youth out of jails and to make youth facilities places of education and treatment not violence and child abuse.

The extreme racially disproportionate population of American prisons and juvenile facilities needs national leadership and increased attention.

My mentor Milton Rector, who headed the National Council on Crime and Deliquency for over 40 years and was a major thinker in America penology and sentencing, would often observe that “In our zeal to punish offenders, we should be careful not to punish ourselves.”

If the current terrible and—in some cases—barbaric state of American prisons and lockups is causing rather than reducing violence in our communities, then we need to channel the anger and macho rhetoric against criminals into evidence-based sentencing and corrections policies that would make us all safer.

Barry Krisberg is the Research and Policy Director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at the University of California Berkeley Law School. He welcomes comments from readers.

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