Prison-growth study debated


The effects of rising incarcerations are assailed, defended


March 1, 2008  




Richmond Times-Dispatch

Some believe that record prison growth in recent decades may be self-defeating. Others say the need for prisons is real, as regrettable and as expensive as they are.

A study by the Pew Center on the States released this week found that more than one of every 100 adults in America now is in jail or prison. Of that number, one in every 15 black men is in jail or prison compared with one in every 106 white men.

Experts say ways of slowing, if not stopping, the growth include more crime prevention, helping ex-inmates ease back into society, and making treatment programs, drug courts and other prison alternatives available for more nondangerous offenders.

"It's not, 'Should we have prison or not?'" said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. There is a need to keep dangerous criminals behind bars, he said. But too many who are locked up are not dangerous, he said.

Many behind bars have been there before. According to a 2002 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the prison inmates released across the country in 1994, more than two-thirds were rearrested and half were back in prison within three years.

The social effects of criminals going in and out of prison and on and off streets are felt the greatest in the neighborhoods where most of it is taking place, according to the U.S. Justice Department and other experts.

King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, said, "It's having devastating consequences upon families and our community as a whole."

Roughly 60 percent of Virginia's prison population is African-American.

"We know that prevention works," said Khalfani, citing programs such as Boys and Girls Clubs and better prenatal care. More investment in such programs, which are far less costly than prisons, could change things, he said.

But, he contends, "there's just no commitment to do so from our federal, state or local governments." Khalfani said, "If we don't do something other than what we've been doing, the cradle-to-prison pipeline will continue."

Virginia and many other states have been working on prison diversion and inmate re-entry efforts in recent years to slow down prison growth.

Many state law and policymakers, however, continue to see a strong need for prisons. Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, said yesterday that Virginia prisons are not holding many, if any, nonviolent, first-time property or drug-possession offenders.

Albo, chairman of the Virginia State Crime Commission, said the prisons are holding people who belong there and at present, at least, there is no good alternative. Locking up criminals prevents crime, he argues.

In 1994, the state ended parole and stiffened sentences for violent and repeat offenders who now are backing up in the system.

Since 1990, Virginia has approved 21,000 new prison beds at a cost of more than $1 billion. As of Jan. 1, Virginia had 38,555 state prison inmates (including 5,623 state inmates being held in local jails) and an additional 21,960 local and regional jail inmates.

Tucker Martin, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, agrees with Albo. "The violent crime rate in Virginia has been decreasing, in large part due to tougher sentencing laws and the abolition of parole," Martin said.

But, Martin said, "at the same time, more must be done to assist prisoners when they re-enter society. Prisons should not have a revolving door. That is too costly to our society, and repeat offenders factor greatly into our current prison population."



Breaking the cycle of prison


March 3, 2008




Richmond Times-Dispatch


America is on trial today on a charge of criminal waste of lives.

For the first time in U.S. history, one of every 100 adults is behind bars -- a figure that should be an embarrassment to any nation that advertises itself as the Land of the Free. When it comes to incarceration worldwide, we're No. 1.

Don't think this sort of news doesn't erode our moral high ground as we lecture Russia, Iran, North Korea or Cuba on freedom.

First, a word from the prosecution.

"We need to get past the reflex or default of detention," said Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring, who can hardly be accused of being soft on violent criminals.

"Those who pose a threat to self or community should be detained. Those who don't should be monitored through a reporting system. The problem is that we're years behind in bringing viable alternatives on line," he said.

"The fact that we don't provide the judges with sufficient alternatives to pretrial detention is embarrassing."

We now call to the stand Evans D. Hopkins, a Danville native.

Hopkins knows all too well the insatiable beast that is the U.S. incarceration machine. Before literally writing his way out of prison, he was sentenced to life for an armed robbery in which no one was hurt.

When he was incarcerated in the 1970s, there were fewer than 300,000 inmates nationwide. Now there are 2.3 million.

"I'm a writer, but I'm almost speechless," said Hopkins, author of "Life After Life: A Story of Rage and Redemption" and the founder and director of The Reclamation Movement.

"Penitentiaries were first called penitentiaries for people to be reformed," Hopkins said. "And now vengeance is the model. And that model is so strong they have geriatric prisons with wheelchairs now. . . . prisons for people to grow old and die in."

Your witness, Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.

"It's nothing to be proud of that we're the wealthiest society in the world and contain the world's largest prison population," he said. "There's a disconnect there."

Mauer said the inmate increase is more attributable to public police changes than crime rates. "We're seeing the results of three decades of get-tough sentencing polices," including no parole and three strikes.

And toward what end?

"We've achieved a world record prison population. But we still have a higher rate of violence than many industrialized nations do. . . . We should be the safest country in the world, and we're far short of that."

As a result of our penchant for imprisonment, 1.5 million children have a parent in prison on any given day -- a loss of parental support and family income that helps perpetuate the cycle.

The verdict is clear: Our unusual reliance on punishment is not only cruel, but threatens to undermine American virtues -- including, as Hopkins pointed out, the notion that torture is un-American.

You'll notice we've called no witnesses for the defense. The reason is simple.