Sunday, November 19, 2006

chain gangs? anyone?

i had my opinions on capital punishment, "getting tough on crime," and the justice system at large.... and then i went to prison.

i spent a total of 12 weeks at two maximum-security prisons in California -- a men's and a women's prison -- and met the people we forget about after they are sentenced and file out of the courtroom. the numbers of our fellow citizens behind bars is shameful. With 2.2 million americans locked up, we have more convicts per capita and in sheer numbers than any other nation. And we have the highest recidivism rate of any country with more than half of our parolees cycling back through. it's clear our justice system isn't working. When we have kids serving longer sentences for stealing cars than repeat offending molesters, we need to evaluate sentencing laws and what we value as a culture.

food for thought:

- of the dozens of inmates i spoke to, only one inmate grew up with both a mom and dad in the home.
- i posed the question "when did you start on the path that brought you here?" to almost every female inmate I spoke to. With few exceptions the answer was sexual molestation.
- the boys from the inner cities consider prison their university -- the only type of "higher learning" they think they have access to.

i'm not naive. i saw the rap sheets of many of the people i spoke to and some of them did horrifying things and deserve to be in prison. Others don't deserve their sentences like inmate Smith, who is serving a 200-year sentence for 8 counts of petty robbery. Granted he had a gun -- that he didn't fire -- but none of his crimes resulted in violence of any kind. This is a man who should be in a work camp or on a chain gang, working out restitution with the state and his victims, NOT clogging up the system and languishing behind bars until his pine box parole. No wonder California is exporting convicts all over the country because they don't have room for all the people they are locking up. there is such a thing as being too tough on crime and the widely variant sentencing is just one of many problems i have with the system. Consider inmate Berry -- in for 13 years for a first-time armed robbery. No one got hurt in Berry's unsuccessful attempt to rob a gas station and he quickly confessed to his crime upon his arrest. He deserves punishment, certainly. But why is he in longer than inmate evanoff, a two-time armed assault offender serving a six-year sentence? or inmate costas, a rapist with a five-year sentence, for crying out loud?

here's my solution: robbers and drug dealers go to work camps to pay off a pre-determined debt to society, and we start offing more murders and rapists, who have forfeited their right to co-exist in our community or in a lock-up on taxpayer dime. some people can't be rehabilitated and right now we are housing basically decent folks who have made mistakes with the murderous, insane and unrepentant. combining violent offenders with short-timers makes prison a molotov cocktail graduate school for crime -- institutionalizing young inmates capable of change. when it comes to crime, let's keep 'em separated. who's with me?

Saturday, November 11, 2006