By Julia Steiny
Van Jones is the President and co-founder of Dream Corps, a Civil Rights advocacy group. Jones got his law degree from Yale, writes best-selling books, has served as an advisor to more than one U.S. President, and is a familiar liberal commentator on TV and radio.
Today what’s most impressive about him is that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Newt Gingrich, a conservative hardliner, in a bipartisian effort to end the scourge of mass incarceration in America. Together and with other organizations, they hope “to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening unlikely allies, elevating proven solutions, and communicating a powerful new narrative.” For short, the movement goes by #cut50.
How on earth are they going to do that? Answer: they just are. It’s immoral not to. Think of it as JFK declaring that America would have a man on the moon in ten years, and without any evidence of being on such a track, NASA did it anyway.
The lift will be epic, Herculean.
If America were even to get close to the rates of incarceration in Europe, for example, we’d have to get within spitting distance of 150 inmates per 100,000 people. The UK, currently with the highest incarceration rate in Europe, is at 148 per 100,000. (France, 100; Germany, 77; Finland, 58.) We’re at 707. Not a miss, but a mile. War-torn Rwanda’s 2013 rate was 492 per 100,000, for heaven’s sake. We’re not even in the ballpark.
Can we, as a nation, wrap our heads around the idea that our notion of discipline has morphed into cruelty? Can we get over the “tough on crime” mantra? Can we learn and practice empathy, so when offenders are sentenced, we’re actually unwilling to throw away the entire life of that 19-year-old car thief? Is there any evidence anywhere that prisons improve behavior? Or can we admit that the humungous size of our prison population strongly argues otherwise? Interestingly, the most common demographic factor among inmates, including females and whites, is that they are high-school dropouts. Can we help schools intervene when students seem headed for trouble?
It would take all that and more to cut the prison population from just under 2.4 million to under 1.2.
A sample of initiatives that could make #cut50 successful.
We need all the good ideas we can muster to get us out of this mess. A good start would be reversing the three big drivers of mass incarceration, according to The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., outlined in last week’s column.
1. End “life” sentences. Remember, Europe considers 10 years to be a long sentence, even for violent crime. After how many years does a sentence become vindictive, retributive and plain cruel?
One in nine U.S. prisoners is serving a life sentence. Of these, roughly 10,000 were convicted of a non-violent crime. Prisoners serving life without parole, those with no hope of being released even as decrepit old people, increased by 22% since 2008. Most horribly, about 10,000 of the lifers were under 18 when they committed their crime. Babies. And about a quarter of them have no hope of parole. Not that it excuses their crime, but the human brain’s executive function isn’t even fully developed until the early 20s, so they’re still paying at age 60 for what they did at 16. These are your tax dollars at work. To what public benefit?
2. Vastly improve community sanctions. Give judges the leeway to send offenders home to perform restitution under intensive supervision. No one’s behavior gets corrected by Corrections. If anything, prison makes it far worse. Most inmates are coming out at some point. You want communities to be fully equipped to handle them when they do come out. Invest the resources into the community itself instead of ignoring the circumstances that produced an offender.
For example. an impressively successful technique, called “circle of support and accountability” (CoSA) was originally developed for sex offenders, long considered incorrigible. It is now validated by research. A CoSA case manager organizes an team of family, neighbors, friends and supporters who work with a team of professionals — social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists. Together they wrap attention and services around offender as he learns to live, reliably, according to community norms. If it works for sex offenders, it can surely work for the vandal, the drug addict and most especially the person suffering from mental illness. CoSA is vastly cheaper than prisons, far more effective at reintegrating miscreants, and dramatically reducing recidivism rates.
3. End the War on Drugs. Period. Why are so many people self-medicating? Europe treats addicts. Why do we punish them instead? Let’s stop.
Do we have the political will to make such changes? The #cut50 movement is sparking all sorts of debate on the subject. Is record-breaking mass incarceration, mainly of men of color, really okay with most Americans? God, I hope not.