Sunday, October 07, 2007

Senator Jim Webb On Mass Incarceration

Jim Webb held hearings on The Mass Incarceration of American citizens. America imprisons a larger percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world. Lets look at the figures. These are from 2005. America 737 per 100,000. Russia per 611 per 100,000. Cuba 487 per 100,000. China 118 per 100,000. Canada 107 per 100,000. We are worse than Russia. Far worse than Cuba. By comparison with Canada we are almost 7 times worse.

Didn't read about the hearing in your newspaper? I'm not surprised. Check out this Google search on news of the hearings. Seven hits. Seven lousy hits. Maybe it will get better when the Sunday papers come out. Or not.

Let us hear a bit about what Jim has to say:

Over the course of the period from the mid-1970s until today, the United States has embarked on one of the largest public policy experiments in our history, yet this experiment remains shockingly absent from public debate: the United States now imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world.

In the name of “getting tough on crime,” there are now 2.1 million Americans in federal, state, and local prisons and jails -- more people than the populations of New Mexico, West Virginia, or several other states. Compared to our democratic, advanced market economy counterparts, the United States has more people in prison by several orders of magnitude.

All tolled, more than 7 million Americans are under some form of correction supervision, including probation and parole.

America’s incarceration rate raises several serious questions. These include: the correlation between mass imprisonment and crime rates, the impact of incarceration on minority communities and women, the economic costs of the prison system, criminal justice policy, and transitioning ex-offenders back into their communities and into productive employment. Equally important, the prison system today calls into question the effects on our society more broadly.

As Winston Churchill noted in 1910, “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” With the world’s largest prison population, our prisons test the limits of our democracy and push the boundaries of our moral identity.
You can read more on his remarks at the link.

Let us look at what a politically connected ex-prisoner has to say.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., is asking Congress to examine high incarceration rates in the United States, and he got a boost from a former California Republican leader yesterday.

Pat Nolan, a vice president of the nonprofit Prison Fellowship, served 29 months in federal custody after pleading guilty to racketeering. He said yesterday that he once was a "reliable tough-on-crime" politician.

"As a state legislator, I made the mistake of thinking that locking people up made our communities safer," Nolan told the congressional Joint Economic Committee yesterday.

"Only when I was in prison did I realize that . . . locking so many of our people in prison while doing nothing to prepare them for their release is very dangerous.

"I commend this committee and your staff for calling attention to the horrible toll that over-incarceration is taking on American society."

The toll that Nolan condemned, the causes of rising incarceration in recent decades and its racially disproportionate impact, were explored by scholars and other expert witnesses at the hearing that Webb chaired and sought.

Webb, a freshman better known for his outspoken stands on defense issues, labeled the racial makeup of America's prisons "alarming," questioned the impact on crime of the high incarceration rate, and hit "enormous" spending to maintain the prison system.

The tab is more than $200 billion for combined expenditures of local, state and federal governments for law-enforcement and corrections personnel, Webb said.

"Are there ways," he asked, "to spend less money, enhance public safety, and make a fairer prison system?"
OK so who are we locking up? The Christian Science Monitor reports:
More than 5.6 million Americans are in prison or have served time there, according to a new report by the Justice Department released Sunday. That's 1 in 37 adults living in the United States, the highest incarceration level in the world.

It's the first time the US government has released estimates of the extent of imprisonment, and the report's statistics have broad implications for everything from state fiscal crises to how other nations view the American experience.

If current trends continue, it means that a black male in the United States would have about a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during his lifetime. For a Hispanic male, it's 1 in 6; for a white male, 1 in 17.

The numbers come after many years of get-tough policies - and years when violent-crime rates have generally fallen. But to some observers, they point to broader failures in US society, particularly in regard to racial minorities and others who are economically disadvantaged.

"These new numbers are shocking enough, but what we don't see are the ripple effects of what they mean: For the generation of black children today, there's almost an inevitable aspect of going to prison," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington. "We have the wealthiest society in human history, and we maintain the highest level of imprisonment. It's striking what that says about our approach to social problems and inequality."
Ron Paul talked about this in the recent Presidential debates.

What else do we know about who gets locked up? Here is a study of 538 people diagnosed with various mental illnesses. What did the study find?
Forty-seven respondents (9%) were incarcerated over the follow-up period. Among them, 20 were incarcerated multiple times. The prevalence, incidence, reasons for incarceration, and time served did not vary significantly by diagnosis. The most significant predictors of jail stay and time to incarceration during the follow-up were being male or black and having been incarcerated before admission. Predictive effects of other risk factors (for example, symptom severity or substance abuse) were smaller or statistically insignificant.
How do the mentally ill get treated in prison? You don't have to guess.
One in six U.S. prisoners is mentally ill. Many of them suffer from serious illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. There are three times as many men and women with mental illness in U.S. prisons as in mental health hospitals.

The rate of mental illness in the prison population is three times higher than in the general population.

According to the 215-page report, Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness, prisons are dangerous and damaging places for mentally ill people. Other prisoners victimize and exploit them. Prison staff often punish mentally ill offenders for symptoms of their illness – such as being noisy or refusing orders, or even self-mutilation and attempted suicide. Mentally ill prisoners are more likely than others to end up housed in especially harsh conditions, such as isolation, that can push them over the edge into acute psychosis.

“Prisons have become the nation’s primary mental health facilities,” said Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program and a co-author of the report. “But for those with serious illnesses, prison can be the worst place to be.”

Woefully deficient mental health services in many prisons leave prisoners undertreated – or not treated at all. Across the country, prisoners cannot get appropriate care because of a shortage of qualified staff, lack of facilities, and prison rules that interfere with treatment.

According to Human Rights Watch, the high rate of incarceration of the mentally ill is a consequence of underfunded, disorganized, and fragmented community mental health services. State and local governments have shut down mental health hospitals across the United States, but failed to provide adequate alternatives. Many people with mental illness – particularly those who are poor, homeless, or struggling with substance abuse problems – cannot get mental health treatment. If they commit a crime, even low-level nonviolent offenses, punitive sentencing laws mandate imprisonment.

“Unless you are wealthy, it can be next to impossible to receive mental health services in the community,” said Fellner. “Many prisoners might never have ended up behind bars if publicly funded treatment had been available.”
Three strikes and you are gone. Some times for life. What a wonderful country.

How do we treat mentally ill ex-prisoners? Do we make their re-entry into society easy? Glad you asked.
Pressed by rising costs, America's states are scrambling for ways to keep millions of people who are released from jails and prisons each year from coming back. An obvious first step would be to abolish senselessly punitive laws that make it difficult for felons to reconstruct their lives, like those in all 50 states that bar former convicts from occupations that have nothing at all to do with their crimes. Another prudent step would be to create high- quality programs that provide newly released people with counseling and job placement. Perhaps most crucially, those who qualify need assistance in getting back their federal disability and Medicaid benefits; inmates typically lose such benefits when they find themselves locked up for 30 days or more.

The loss of benefits is especially devastating for the mentally ill, who make up one-sixth of the prison population and who are particularly susceptible to recidivism. Most of them get psychiatric drugs and treatment for the first time in jail. They often improve quickly, but deteriorate just as fast when they are released without being re-enrolled in federal disability programs or Medicaid, which would give them access to medication and psychiatric care. Homeless, delusional and out of control, they are inevitably rearrested for behaviors related to their illnesses. Many of them come back to jail so regularly that corrections workers call them "frequent fliers."

Impoverished people who suffer from mental illnesses and other serious disabilities are entitled to Supplemental Security Income assistance, administered through the Social Security Administration. In many states, people who are declared eligible for Social Security-based benefits are automatically enrolled in Medicaid, which in turn provides mentally ill people with care and drugs.

Federal law requires that people be suspended from SSI benefits when they land in jail for even a short time. The federal government diligently enforces the suspension rules - and even pays a small bounty to the prisons and jails in exchange for notice that a beneficiary has been incarcerated. But the institutions are offered no incentives to report that inmates are about to be released and need to have their benefits restored. Moreover, the rules governing the program are so vague and complicated that most prison officials don't understand them.

A similar situation has developed with Medicaid, which bars states from receiving federal matching funds for treatment given to inmates except in acute cases requiring hospitalization. The federal government envisioned an arrangement under which Medicaid benefits would be suspended during incarceration and resumed upon release. But the states have resorted to terminating inmate eligibility outright and allowing inmates, including the mentally ill, to leave custody without access to care.
Cute. Mental illness lands you in prison and then you get no help when you get out. This must be the compassionate conservatism I have heard so much about.

How is drug prohibition affecting incarceration rates?
Regarding State prison population growth from 1990 through 2000, the US Dept. of Justice reports, "Overall, the increasing number of drug offenses accounted for 27% of the total growth among black inmates, 7% of the total growth among Hispanic inmates, and 15% of the growth among white inmates.
Let us look at the population these drug offenders are drawn from:
According to the federal Household Survey, "most current illicit drug users are white. There were an estimated 9.9 million whites (72 percent of all users), 2.0 million blacks (15 percent), and 1.4 million Hispanics (10 percent) who were current illicit drug users in 1998." And yet, blacks constitute 36.8% of those arrested for drug violations, over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations. African-Americans comprise almost 58% of those in state prisons for drug felonies; Hispanics account for 20.7%.
So is the increase in prison population caused by increased crime rates?
Growth in the prison population is due to changing policy, not increased crime. Many criminal justice experts have found that the increase in the incarceration rate is the product of changes in penal policy and practice, not changes in crime rates. Changes in sentencing, both in terms of time served and the range of offenses meriting incarceration, underlie the growth in the prison population.

Changes in drug policy have had the single greatest impact on criminal justice policy. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created mandatory minimum sentences for possession of specific amounts of cocaine. The Act instituted a 100-to-1 differential in the treatment of powder and crack cocaine, treating possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine the same as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. Crack cocaine is typically consumed by the poor, while powder cocaine, a significantly more expensive drug, is consumed by wealthier users. Mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack-cocaine users are comparable (and harsher in certain cases) to sentences for major drug dealers.

The composition of prison admissions has also shifted toward less serious offenses, characterized by parole violations and drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession and one out of five were for sales. The crime history for three-quarters of drug offenders in state prisons involved non-violent or drug offenses.
As my friend Cliff Thornton Jr. says, "If this was happening to white people there would be revolution in the streets."

Cross Posted at Classical Values


Karridine said...

On the mentally-ill in prison... that's a whole week's posts & discussion in itself!

A Doctor of Chiropractic once worked in a regular hospital for ONE MONTH (in the 1930's? Sorry, no link) and helped SO MANY of the chronic patients heal and leave that he was forced OUT by the medical establishment, and laws were enacted at the request of the medical establishment to prevent such humbuggery from happening in the future!

Imagine! Good nutrition and chiropractic, holistic care dropping our prison population by 70% in one year!

The Horror!

Reliapundit said...

all got Due Process and were convicted of breaking the law.

laws democratically written.

a majority probably pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

we have more incarcerated and a lower crime rate than any other nation.

YUP: the USA has a lower crime rate the the Euroweeeeeeeenies.

Reliapundit said...


as the left is to hiss/rosenbergs

you seem to be re: drug criminals

BOTTOM-LINE: they're guilty.


might some users be better off in treatment than prison?


and i would wager that first and second time users are sent to treatment and not prison.

and i would wager that most are dealers/pushers in jail for trafficking and not possession.

there are stats on this simon so WATCH OUT.

juandos said...

Well we live in a democratic society and we elected the lawmakers...

If we don't like the results we can always change them at the next election...

Is putting potheads into prison cost effective? Probably not...

So whining about druggies in prison is just another form of masturbation like the following is: "Imagine! Good nutrition and chiropractic, holistic care dropping our prison population by 70% in one year"...

Change it at the ballot box...

Nick said...

"all got Due Process..."

Not necessarily. Pick up a Criminal Proceedure casebook and if doesn't make you puke, you're dead.

M. Simon said...


I'm not whining. I'm educating.

One vote don't mean shit.

Zman said...

"the bottom line" is tolerance =zero democracy.Laws are most definitly not democratically written. They are also not democratically enforced.Unless your definition of democracy is, rule by fear.The word "drug" does not connote criminality...except in the minds of totalitarians.