Sandra Parshall

Did you know that one out of every 31 adults in the U.S. is either in prison/jail or on supervised release from incarceration?

That startling statistic is in an article by Senator James Webb of Virginia that appeared in last Sunday’s Parade Magazine. I don’t usually regard this newspaper supplement as a source of sociological wisdom, but Webb’s piece is worth every citizen’s attention. Reform of the criminal justice system and our overburdened prisons is one of his keenest interests, and he has the facts, supplied by the Department of Justice, to back up his call for change.

The prison population in this country is up to 2.3 million. Another 5 million adults are on probation, parole, or other correctional supervision. The U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its prisoners – 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, almost five times the worldwide rate of 158 per 100,000. As Webb says, “Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different – and vastly counterproductive.”

What we’re doing differently is putting a lot of people in prison for relatively minor and nonviolent offenses. According to the DOJ, fully one-third of all prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses. Almost half of all drug arrests in 2007 involved only marijuana. Almost 60% of those imprisoned for drug offenses have no history of violence or involvement in major drug sales. Four out of five drug arrests are for possession; only one in five is for dealing. While marijuana users are serving prison sentences, the Mexican cartels that bring drugs across our borders and into our communities, at an estimated annual profit of $25 billion, flourish unimpeded, and gangs from other parts of Latin America, Asia, and Europe are getting in on the action. Imprisoning users does nothing to stem the drug trade.

Our prisons are overcrowded and dangerous. People who commit offenses that other countries would treat as medical, mental, or social problems are thrown into institutions where violence is a constant threat and diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis are rampant. Being caught with even a small amount of an illegal drug is enough to ruin a person’s entire future, if he survives prison. According to the DOJ, more than 350,000 adult prisoners are mentally ill. This is some of what we’re getting for the $68 billion we spend on corrections in this country every year.

Some state governments are beginning to realize that their corrections systems have to be fixed – if only because state budgets can’t continue to fund ever-increasing prison populations. Last week, Gov. Patterson of New York announced plans to roll back harsh sentences for nonviolent offenses. Across the country, politicians are pushing sentencing reform to reduce prison populations and costs. Of course, opponents claim that this amounts to coddling criminals and that we should be building more prisons.

Senator Webb proposes a national commission that would take a comprehensive approach to corrections reform and provide guidance to states dealing with overburdened prisons and court systems. Like so many other problems we face in this country, the chaos in our prisons seems overwhelming, and plenty of people will throw up their hands and say it can’t be fixed. But it must be fixed, whether at the federal level or state by state. We can’t look the other way and allow this mess to get worse.

What approach do you favor? Do you believe nonviolent offenders should be given lighter sentences, or probation and community service instead of prison terms?

Do you believe nonviolent offenders should be incarcerated with those convicted of violent crimes?

Do you think drug use should be treated as a crime or a medical problem?

Do you believe marijuana use should be decriminalized?

Read Senator Webb’s article here: http://tinyurl.com/dx3c2g

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Comment by Sandra Parshall on April 3, 2009 at 10:48am
Jack wrote: Maybe we could start a campaign, Sandra. Crime Writers for Prison Justice: Real Crimes Only.

Count me in!
Comment by I. J. Parker on April 3, 2009 at 8:55am
I don't think we'll fix this problem. In fact, the black population in jails is there because they committed a crime -- as is the white or Latino population. In our area, black crime (often directed against other blacks) is drug gang warfare.
If I were king, I'd order all the white-collar criminals out to work at their jobs and pay restitution. Until then they're on house arrest. The violent criminals need to be kept away from the rest of society. And legalizing marijuana is long overdue.
Comment by Jack Getze on April 3, 2009 at 8:45am
The opposition would say that legal alcohol is one of this country's biggest problems -- fights, accidents, addiction, and other health issues. Do we really want to add another legal substance for abusers? I'm not sure this argument holds water. Probably a lot of the same people, plus marijuana is so prevalent and easy to acquire, I can't believe legalizing it would increase overall use that much. I agree that the imprisonment of users is a tragedy. Maybe we could start a campaign, Sandra. Crime Writers for Prison Justice: Real Crimes Only.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 3, 2009 at 6:48am
B.R.--we don't seem to have any problem regulating alcohol use; you can't drive (or fly, or operate a boat) legally if you're drunk. If pot were legalized, I imagine that similar regulation would be part of the deal. To John M--the other people who profit from the current madness are the operators of for-profit prisons in the U.S. Here's an example of the worst kind of abuse of the for-profit prison system: http://agonist.org/texas_nate/20090213/for_profit_prisons_corrupt_judge_hundreds_of_youths_jailed_for_no_reason
Comment by Sandra Parshall on April 3, 2009 at 6:41am
Paul, in the US race plays a big part in who goes to jail for nonviolent offenses and who doesn't. Studies show no statistical difference in drug use between whites and blacks, but the overwhelming majority of people who end up in jail for using are black.

B.R., the pilot who flew while under the influence of drugs and alcohol committed a crime and should face penalties. He should never be allowed to fly a plane again. If he got high in his own home, and endangered no one, it's nobody else's business, IMO.
Comment by B.R.Stateham on April 3, 2009 at 6:29am
Damn! I wish I could re-edit stuff after submitting it! Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes!
Comment by B.R.Stateham on April 3, 2009 at 6:23am
II am surprised we're surprised by these statistics. The US has led the world for decades in incarcerating its populaton percentage wise. Inspirte of the idiots who tear their hear and shot about letting criminals go free, we keep more people in jail for longer periods of time than anyone else.

In my state, you either know somone who's in jail---or you are in jail--or just got out of jail--or you work for the prison system. That's just the way it is.

As far as reform goes---the history of prision reform is a constant merry-go-round of reforming the reforms that were previously reformed. No one seems to have the answer. And the bible-thumping, god fearing conservatives of this country are going to be damn sure very little REAL reform ever happens. Putting people in prison is a sure-fire way to get elected to office.

And although i agree the drug laws in this country are patently screwy, nevertheless what do you do with a guy who (if I recall the real incident accurately) was an an airline pilot who landed his crowded plane at the wrong airport AND didn't even use a runway to land on! He landed on the parking apron, barely missing a whole row of planes by inches in the process. Booze and marijuana was his reasons. Just a little mistake, there, buddy. Won't happen again!

I dunno. Who really has an answer?
Comment by John McFetridge on April 3, 2009 at 5:47am
The history of drug laws are fascinating - and sad. They have more to do with racism than anything else.

Recently I heard someone say, "It's not like world convened the top scientists to go through the chemical qualities of the drugs to determine the most harmful." Drug laws are about controlling people - different people at different times in history, that's why there's never really been a comprehensive drug law.

Maybe the saddest thing of all right now is the biggest beneficiaries of drug laws are organizned criminals - I wonder how much of their giant, tax-free, profits are spent on lobbyists?
Comment by Sandra Parshall on April 3, 2009 at 5:10am
Good points, Dana. Thanks. Drug use and the drug trade are complex problems, and I'm afraid our system is only capable of one approach.

I don't think marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol --it's less so, actually. Nobody should be driving a car while under the influence of either, but I don't see the point of throwing people in jail for possessing a small quantity of marijuana when alcohol can be openly purchased and consumed.
Comment by Jon Loomis on April 3, 2009 at 5:03am
Webb is a good guy, and this is a thoughtful and necessary initiative. I do think marijuana should be legalized--it's safer than aspirin, for God's sake--and I think we need to get rid of the prison-for-profit system that's turning us into a nation of convicts.

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