With less than 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 22% of its prison population, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We imprison almost 2.3 million people today, as opposed to around 300,000 during the 1970s. Of those 2.3 million, estimates indicate between 300,000 and 500,000 are non-violent drug offenders.
Building and operating prisons is one of America’s largest and most profitable urban industries. These companies have made a huge financial investment in lobbying for more severe drug and “tough on crime” laws and increased criminalization of immigrants. The “prison-industrial complex” thrives on the volume of people arrested, detained, convicted, and sent to private for-profit prisons. The two largest private prison institutions, CoreCivic and GEO, own 75% of the market and house an ever-increasing percentage of America’s prison population. The primary funders, and in many cases shareholders, of CoreCivic and GEO are banks and related financial entities. Private prisons also account for an estimated 73% of detainment facilities for undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Such horrifying statistics – plus clear racial discrimination in prosecution and sentencing – makes the issue of mass incarceration a screaming moral emergency. People of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, are unfairly targeted by the police and end up facing harsher prison sentences than their white counterparts. According to a report released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, black men receive prison sentences 20 percent longer than do white men for similar crimes. America is now incarcerating a higher proportion of African Americans than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
While no one doubts that violent and even many non-violent criminals belong behind bars, America’s incarceration rate speaks to something much deeper than catching criminals; it speaks to a prison industry that lobbies for ever bigger budgets and benefits, to corporations that exploit cheap prison labor, and to Wall Street interests wanting bigger and bigger profits from locking up as many people as possible for as long as possible.
The more America ignores these realities and the huge conflict of interest inherent in private for-profit prisons, the richer the prison-industrial complex and all who benefit from it will become — and the poorer we will be as a nation.
In the words of John F. Kennedy, “We cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.” Our system of mass incarceration is a huge wound upon the spirit of America, and that wound can only be healed if we address what it is, how it got here, and how it can be changed.
Central to our problem is a penchant for punishment, rather than rehabilitation, that runs through too much of our criminal justice system. While there are many good people working within the system, institutionally we remain stuck within an obsolete consciousness that does more to prepare people for a life of crime once they get out of jail, than for a life repaired.
The 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Bill successfully deals with a few of the worst aspects of America’s prison problem by giving federal judges more leeway when sentencing some drug offenders and boosting prisoner rehabilitation efforts; reducing life sentences for some drug offenders with three convictions, or “three strikes,” to 25 years; and incentivizing prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism with the reward being an earlier release to either home confinement or a halfway house. Those measures, which apply only to non-violent offenders and only to federal prisoners, begin what will hopefully be a larger tide of criminal justice reform.
Together with restorative justice techniques and other peace-building measures, both in and out of prisons, hopefully America is finally beginning to turn away from the draconian prison practices that have become such a stain upon America’s soul.
What we need to do next is to examine the prison population we have and undertake a concerted, national discourse on how to reduce our prison population. Being that the vast majority of prisoners are locked up in state and local prisons, we need a populist movement in each state to release as many non-violent prisoners as possible – and to prepare them for their freedom at the same time. There is no issue where the bully pulpit of the White House is more necessary.
At the same time, there is a great deal that the federal government can do. The Justice Department can be empowered to investigate for-profit prisons. The Civil Rights Division can be empowered to bring appropriate civil rights class-action suits on behalf of the imprisoned, and to investigate the conditions under which prisoners are held. By the same token, the civil rights division can examine the parole process and apply much-needed pressure on states and localities to re-examine their sentencing processes.
The Williamson Administration will:
- Abolish for-profit prisons.
- End the War on Drugs by legalizing cannabis and psychedelics used for both recreational and medical purposes, and expunging past convictions in order to reunite families that have been separated as a result of our criminal justice system.
- Release all incarcerated individuals with non-violent drug convictions and those who are incarcerated awaiting trial.
- Nearly 60,000 youth under the age of 18 have been incarcerated in prisons and juvenile jails in the U.S. The Williamson administration will ensure that children who interact with our justice system are treated as children, and not as grown adults.
- Enforce the “Prisoners Bill of Rights”.
- Restore voting rights for ex-felons.
- Ensure when individuals are released from prison, they receive a legitimate transition back into society.
- End federal “Three Strikes” laws, and work with the states to end similar state provisions.
- End mandatory sentencing.
- Being that the vast majority of prisoners are locked up in state and local prisons, the Williamson administration will work with state governments to release as many non-violent offenders as possible.
- Empower the Justice Department to investigate for-profit prisons.
- End Cash Bail by encouraging Congress to pass H.R. 1249 No Money Bail Act.
- Work to increase the number and average pay of public defenders.
- Abolish the Death Penalty.
- Abolish underpaid prison labor.
- Empower the Civil Rights Division to bring appropriate civil rights class-action suits on behalf of the imprisoned, and to investigate the conditions under which prisoners are held.
- Charge the Civil Rights Division with examining the parole process, and have them apply much-needed pressure on states and localities to re-examine their sentencing processes.