Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons

Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons

By Arjun Sethi | Christian Science Monitor | December 29, 2011

Finally, America is beginning to tackle overcrowded prisons, prompted by financially strapped states that can no longer afford them. The road to prison reform, and less crowding, includes revamping ‘three strikes’ laws, as in California, and limiting pre-trial detention.

First, revamp habitual-offender laws, now in effect in more than 20 states, which regularly yield perverse sentences.

California’s three-strikes law, for example, was passed during the paranoia that followed the searing murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a long-time violent offender, and is so egregiously punitive that nonviolent petty theft may serve as a “third strike.” Leandro Andrade, a father of three, who never once committed a violent felony, received two sentences of 25 years-to-life for stealing children’s videotapes, including “Free Willy 2” and “Cinderella,” from Kmart. A new ballot initiative in California, “The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012,” seeks to change this law.

Second, implement misdemeanor reform by decriminalizing offenses such as feeding the homeless, dog-leash violations, and occupying multiple seats on the subway. Such reform is vital: between 1972 and 2006, misdemeanor prosecutions rose from 5 million to 10.5 million.

Third, limit the use of pre-trial detention. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s prison population haven’t been convicted of a crime – they are awaiting trial. Many are arrested for low-risk offenses such as disturbing the peace or traffic violations, and they languish in jail because they can’t afford bail. Releasing these individuals would not jeopardize public safety and would reduce overcrowding and public defender case loads. Just this year, Kentucky terminated pre-trial detention for numerous drug offenses and mandated citations rather than arrests for certain misdemeanors.

Fourth, impose nonprison penalties on those arrested for technical parole and probation violations like missing a meeting or court appearance. This would dramatically ameliorate overcrowding and excessive case loads given that over a third of all prison admissions are for such types of violations. Texas is leading the charge here, and through such measures has significantly reduced its inmate population.

The spirit that animates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments is human dignity. A recognition that no matter the crime or harm, criminal defendants and prisoners retain a dignity that must be respected.

Forty years ago, a group of inmates claimed they were deprived of this dignity and, in what has since become a subject of fascination in American pop culture, rioted at Attica Correctional Facility in New York. The ensuing violence and its death toll serves as an ominous reminder that America must pursue criminal justice reform if it is to honor this dignity.

Arjun Sethi is an attorney.

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