The alarming incarceration rates in the U.S. are far greater than any other country’s.In the next five years, these rates are only projected to increase. In addition, the nefarious origins of these high incarceration rates that emerged during the war on drugs proliferate the racial divide in the U.S. and place minorities at a clear disadvantage. This seems like a justified reason to lose hope in the state of American prison reform (Zoukis). Despite these bleak statistics, the clear faults in our prison system leave much room to act. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act,” (Solnit). Once America realizes that rehabilitation programs like substance abuse counseling, educational services, and therapy not only save taxpayer dollars in the long run but also drastically reduce the rate of recidivism, there is hope that our politicians who are unwilling to be motivated by humane reasons will be convinced by the fiscal advantages of prison reform. The recent bipartisan discussion has been evidence of this notion of fiscal advantages incentivizing prison reform, emphasizing that there is certainly room for hope that American leaders will take action to combat clear faults of the U.S. justice system.
The war on drugs began in 1971, as President Richard Nixon adopted a tough-on-crime stance to target the omnipresent fear of drug use that was correlated with the counterculture of the 1960s. The war on drugs created new policies like the introduction of no-knock warrants, mandatory sentencing, and increases in funding for federal drug control agencies. In response to the policies adopted by the Nixon administration, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s assistant to democratic affairs, said, “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” The integrity of this quote withstands as Nixon classified marijuana as a Schedule One drug, despite the fact that the drug review commission unanimously agreed that marijuana should be decriminalized (Lobianco).
It is evident that the war on drugs had very disturbing origins, however, the Nixon administration did not mark the end of the hysteria that was to come. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was met with incarceration skyrocketing from 50,000 to 400,000 inmates (Drug Policy Alliance). Racial motives were rampant as well, seen through the huge disparity between minimum prison sentences for crack and cocaine established in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This act made it so that five grams of crack had the same minimum prison sentence as 500 grams of cocaine, despite the fact that an analysis commissioned by Congress in 1984 concluded that crack and cocaine do not possess significantly different chemical compositions or physical reactions for users. The only main difference between crack and cocaine seems to be the cost of the drugs: the much greater cost of cocaine means it tends to be used predominantly by affluent white individuals. Conversely, the low cost of crack makes it accessible for poorer populations, which includes a disproportionate number of Black individuals (Vagins). The effect of Nixon and Reagan’s policies during the war on drugs can still be seen today as incarceration rates have continued to grow and racial disparities are still ingrained in the American justice system. Since Nixon’s administration, the number of Americans in prison has increased by 400%, with over 50% of American prisoners being incarcerated for drug-related offenses. While Black communities are no more likely to use or sell drugs than white communities, Black individuals are nearly three times more likely to be arrested or incarcerated for drug offenses, and they face 13.1% longer sentences than white counterparts (Lopez). The disparity between Blacks and whites in regard to sentencing along with the differences in the likelihood of being arrested for drug offenses is clear evidence of the inherent racial motives of the policies that emerged during the war on drugs and how they have sustained.
When the number of arrests skyrocketed following the war on drugs, American prisons could not accommodate this drastic increase in the number of prisoners. This is when the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) stepped in, taking advantage of American capitalism to profit off of increasing incarceration. The depraved nature of the CCA was apparent from its formation: in 1988, CCA co-founder Tom Beasley stated: “You just sell prisons like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers,” (Larson). The privatization of prisons has allowed the CCA to take in $1.7 billion a year (CCA), despite costing the same amount for American taxpayers as government-funded prisons (Oppel). Private prisons are two times more likely to give infractions to prisoners as government-funded prisons, causing sentences to lengthen (Mukherjee). In addition to increasing sentence lengths, private prisons often sneak occupancy clauses into state contracts, forcing states to pay fines if they do not meet capacity quotas. In 2011, the state of Arizona was forced to pay $3 million to a private prison for not meeting the 97% capacity quote instated by one of its private prisons (Ortega). Even if prisoners show stark improvements in prison or possess the desire to better themselves, private prisons have no real motivation to decrease sentencing or provide programs for prisoners to assimilate into society. Instead, they have clear incentives to keep prisoners within the confines of their prison walls. Rather than provide a means for rehabilitation, private prisons profit off of the worst aspects of the American prison system.
With nearly 10,000 prisoners released each week in the U.S., this element of rehabilitation should be at the core of the American prison system (USDJ). Currently, 76.6% of prisoners end up back in prison within five years of their release (Zoukis). Not only is our prison system failing prisoners, but it is also failing the American public, as a vast majority of prisoners released contribute to the crime rate that Americans are fearful of. Yet, rather than focusing on ways to reduce recidivism, the American system emphasizes the aspect of punishment. For example, the practice of solitary confinement is not only considered a torture method that violates international standards, but is also associated with an increased risk of violence by prisoners and has even been found to cause permanent brain damage (Gawande). Despite this, solitary confinement is considered standard practice in American prisons, given to between 80,000 and 100,000 prisoners annually (Browne). Practices within prisons that increase violence among inmates help provide some reason for the U.S.’s high recidivism rate.
When prisoners are released, the American justice system makes it nearly impossible for prisoners to assimilate back into society and the economy. Convicts are ineligible for food stamps, public housing, student loans, and many other democratic rights like the right to vote (Childress). While the U.S. once had 350 college degree programs available for prisoners prior to the war on drugs, there are currently only 12 college degree programs-–with the largest program having a waitlist of 10,000 people (Zoukis). Through these systematic methods of oppression, Ehrlichman’s sentiment of “disrupting these communities” is clear. While the reasoning behind these oppressive constraints could be dictated by politicians as a means to curtail violence and crime, the covert motive is evidently ridding prisoners, who are predominantly minorities placed in the system due to racial motivations, of having any opportunity to ameliorate their lives, explaining not only extremely high rates of recidivism, but also exponentially high rates of homelessness and suicide by prisoners (Mai).
While the U.S. has a long history of a flawed criminal justice system that possesses clear detriments to both prisoners and American taxpayers, other countries have introduced reforms that have presented inherent benefits. In Norway, the recidivism rate dropped from a staggeringly high 91% to 20% following a reform program known as “restorative justice,” which emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment, including job training, therapy, and educational programs (Papendorf). While the U.S. has an incarceration rate of 707 per every 100,000 people, Norway has a rate of only 75 per every 100,000 people (Sterbenz). The NY Times found that if the U.S. were to adopt Norway’s criminal justice system methods, $45 billion could be saved annually (Benko). While it is often difficult to appeal to the humanity of our nation’s leaders and motivate them to adopt policies by stating that prisoners deserve humane programs, the evidence of the money saved long term through restorative justice programs offers hope that politicians in the U.S. may adopt these policies.
Recent actions by American leaders have proved the inspiration felt from Norway’s policies. In 2015, a cohort of prison directors and politicians from North Dakota visited Norway in order to study their prison systems. North Dakota began implementing reform immediately following this visit: providing educational opportunities, community-building tasks for prisoners, and even reducing sentencing rates drastically in response to good behavior (Liberman & Morales). North Dakota is not the only state to show reforms following Norway’s policies––Nathan Deal, the Governor of Georgia, has introduced revisions to mandatory sentencing, reforms to judge’s sentencing discretionary policies, and educational programs for prisoners to receive high school diplomas (Shavin). Nathan Deal is a Republican, which helps emphasize how many of these reforms appeal in a non-partisan manner, offering greater hope as the perpetual gridlock due to polarization of Democrats and Republicans seems to be circumvented as prison reform offers both humane and economic benefits. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry introduced drug courts, which rely on rehabilitation programs for drug-related offenders rather than prison time (Perry). On November 15th of 2018, a bipartisan prison reform bill was passed by the House with reforms that target many of these war on drugs issues––including eliminating the three-strike policy that forces drug offenders to face life in prison and expanding employment opportunities for prisoners (Lynch & Mason). In addition, America can learn from countries like Israel and Canada which have declared private prisons unconstitutional. As American leaders begin to realize more and more the drastic failures of the war on drugs, the unconstitutional nature of private prisons, and as they breach party lines to shape policy that focuses on rehabilitation over punishment, the semblance for hope in regard to prison reform is truly apparent.
The issue of incarceration rates and prison reform is often a neglected issue in the United States. It is often difficult to empathize with prisoners, and the isolation they have from the rest of the population as they are physically isolated within walled confines makes it easy to forget about their existence. Fears of crime often lead to the dehumanization of prisoners, making this issue an even more difficult problem to tackle. The tough on crime stance adopted by many politicians allow them to secure more votes as they target fears of Americans, making neglecting or exploiting prisoners a smart political move. However, our nation often conflates being tough on crime with being tough on criminals. Pulling back the curtain on our corrupt criminal justice system and introducing reforms has inherent benefits for prisoners and the American public alike. The effects of the war on drugs and the projections of increased incarceration rates in the future may make it easy to give up hope on the state of prison reform in the U.S., but the same capitalistic nature that put our criminal justice system in the horrid position it currently stands in is the same capitalistic nature that can offer hope for reform.
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