US Incarceration Nation Faces Budgetary Pressure

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 3/25/2010 12:04:00 AM
He said "I ain't spending my life here
I ain't living alone
Ain't breaking no rocks on the chain gang
I'm breakin' out and headin' home"

Another thing America #1-style cheerleaders need to explain to me and others who believe that it is a shoddy example of how to run a country is its need to throw so many of its own people in jail. For, another thing America is infamous for is having the world's highest incarceration rate. Like the hopeless fraud that is the American dream, it needs some explaining why this "melting pot" is compelled to throw many of its minorities should be behind bars. It's inequality writ large all over again as the "land of opportunity" is more like one big gated community, with jails being the doghouse.

Certainly there are profit$$$ to be made throwing an increasing number of the citizenry behind bars especially in private prisons, but, pray tell, what does it do for "labour productivity" and other economistic metrics by reducing the labour force in this manner? Supermax prisons, anyone? It's hardly novel to hear that America's jails are more punitive than corrective. Albert Einstein once said that madness was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So it is with America and its preference to forget its prison mess. Alike its fiscal woes where it collectively prefers to kick the can down the road, its corrective ones are pretty much of the lock 'em up and throw away the key variety.

Or maybe not anymore. It seems that fiscal woes are bumping up against the world's most populous prison population as throwing people behind bars--no matter how badly mistreated they are --still costs money. California, the state with the nation's largest prison population, is now issuing "Get Out of Jail Free" cards for a large segment of these users of fine state facilities. From NPR:
Los Angeles County is so broke that the sheriff is cutting costs by releasing hundreds of inmates from county jails early. Over the past three months, more than 350 inmates from the nation's largest county jail have been handed what amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Anthony Vargas left the county's twin-tower jail downtown after serving half the time he was supposed to for commercial burglary and forging a prescription. "It's called day-for-day," Vargas says. "Every day you serve in jail counts as two days."

Another just-released inmate, Steve Gutierrez, was sentenced to 80 days behind bars for driving without a license and for violating a restraining order. But he served just 10 days and left jail wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor his movements. "Good for me," he says while carrying his belongings in a jail-issued plastic bag. "Who wants to shower next to all these men? Who wants to go to the bathroom next to all these guys? ... The food is terrible. And you're freezing to death in there. It's bad." The early-release program was intended for people like Gutierrez, people who are not known gang members, who don't have a violent criminal history. "People with Mickey Mouse crimes, like tickets," Gutierrez says.

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca says budget shortfalls are forcing him to release inmates like these early. He's trying to cut $128 million from jail operations. Baca's also eliminated overtime pay for deputies and is even getting back in a patrol car himself every Friday. "No one likes early release," says Baca. "I don't like it. I...think the governor doesn't like it, and no city wants it. The whole point of it all is — money does matter. And public safety should be the last thing cut out of government." Baca says he'd rather inmates serve at least 80 percent of their sentences...

Today, California prisons are under order to reduce overcrowding. That resulted in a new state law that's being applied to some county jails. But in Los Angeles, it's money that's driving the early releases. UCLA professor Michael Stoll says others around the country are doing the same. "Most states are experimenting with releasing nonviolent, low-level offenders in part because most states have faced the same kind of budget crisis that California is facing," says Stoll.

But some people fear the kind of scenario that happened in Sacramento, Calif., last month. The sheriff's department released 22-year-old Kevin Peterson after he had served only half his four-month sentence for violating probation. Less than a day later, Peterson was arrested for attempted rape. "Granted, you're going find in every state a case in which you release someone early from prison, and they go on and recommit a crime, some of them more heinous than others," says Stoll. "Even when people serve out their time and are released from prison unconditionally, there's always going be that risk, too."

Sheriff Lt. Kevin Kykendal says inmates are carefully screened before they're released and monitored once they get out. But he says letting them out early is still a big deal. "I think all inmates should serve 100 percent of a time," says Kykendal. "But with fiscal constraints, the economy the way it is doesn't allow us to do that."
So, maybe there's a silver lining behind Calibankruptcy as the largest America state tends to set trends for the rest of the nation. Perhaps they will finally decide that addressing social ills long kicked down the road in true red, white, and blue fashion is in order. What a novel idea. Like deficits, maybe the highly stratified and racialized society that is modern-day America does matter after all. In the meantime, how a country like this believes it can lecture the rest of the world on human rights is utterly beyond me.

Meanwhile, have a look at the abstract of this paper I found on these matters that serves as a pretty damning indictment of how things stand. Can budgetary pressures result in change we can believe in? I certainly hope so:
Disproportionate Minority Confinement: A Historical Look at Racial Incarceration

The incarceration of African Americans is not a phenomenon that occurred post the civil rights era but has been a practical fact of criminal justice administration since data on incarceration has been kept. Before crack cocaine and three strikes; before the war on drugs; before the war on poverty and the welfare state; before children born out of wedlock and the rise of single female head of households; before sentencing guidelines and getting tough on crime; before the world wars; and before the revolutionary war - African Americans have been disproportionately incarcerated in the United States. World and American history teaches us that the criminal justice system is not only an institution of retribution, rehabilitation, incapacitation and incarceration (the four theories of punishment) but is an institution of social control. This paper will review the historical rise in the incarceration of African Americans in prisons as well as some of the key explanations and proposed solutions to disproportional minority confinement.