When your State is the national leader in locking up convicted criminals the first reaction would be to celebrate the superb police work and safe streets. But when the real reasons are a prison industry where private firms handle the overflow of inmates for profit, where the nation’s long- time drug war has targeted entire communities of people of color based on race, and politicians fear being labeled soft on crime there is little if anything to be happy about.
Two categories where the United States of America is the unequaled world leader is the number of citizens per one hundred thousand we imprison, and in our defense budget for the military where we spend six times the next two nations put together. What does that say about us?
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute has issued a report written by John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn that just over half of African-American males and an increasing number of females from their 30’s to 40’s have already done prison time in troubled Milwaukee County. Too many of them are already felons. Any scholars studying how to employ and train Wisconsin workers would have to be staggered by that statistic. For people who have done prison time, who are African-American, and in many cases are felons, who already are most likely not to have sufficient means of even obtaining family-supporting jobs even with those three strikes against them, are never going to be truly employable. That too becomes a drag on the State’s economy.
What does that mean for Wisconsin and so many states with similar problems? It means these people will be more likely to re-offend and be imprisoned again at great public expense, and when they are not doing time they will be dependent upon public assistance as they are more likely to be out of work for extended periods and unable to support themselves or a family. The effects on families are incredibly destructive. Both men and women who are in prison cannot be with their children, they often lose custody of those children, and put enormous pressure on the foster care system to say nothing of the sadness and loss the kids themselves experience when they are buffeted about in and out of foster care. The process is both enormously destructive and self-perpetuating.
This is nothing short of a social meltdown so profound that it threatens what is left of any Middle Class in America, it makes a complete mockery of the American Dream, and it reveals that race is still very much a factor. According to Michelle Alexander in her new book The New Jim Crow, blacks are twenty six times more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses than are their white counterparts who live in communities not targeted specifically for the resource rich war on drugs. Worst of all, a large proportion of these people have their lives ruined by non-violent offenses—many times possession and use of controlled substances where they are the victims of chemical dependencies requiring treatment rather than prison.
According to Joel Gaughan, the leader of WISDOM/MICAH’s 11X15 Program, it costs taxpayers $32,000 a year to incarcerate a person and only $8,000 per year to treat that same person instead. If treatment is the option, parents, and especially women, can hold on to their kids and get the treatment they need, and then emerge to fight another day—perhaps being in a better position to find that rare job and support themselves and their children and get off public assistance.
Gaughan explains the 11 X 15 program this way: the social justice organization seeks to have the Wisconsin prison population down to 11,000 by 2015 the end of a State Biennial Budget year. Presently we are paying $32.000 per prisoner for well over 25,000 people per year. That’s a lot of money.
Wisconsin already has treatment programs in places that cost just $8,000 per year, and keeps families together, and gives people a chance to earn a living and not to become completely dependent upon the taxpayer for their lifetimes. Treatment programs are NOT available to violent or repeat offenders—those people no one wants on the streets at all. Those people are worth spending $32,000 per year to keep away from law abiding citizens. But the tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin prisons alone who are not violent and not a threat to the public safety are ill-served when we lock them up. And the taxpayers foot the entire bill for our fiscal stupidity–even imbecility here.
What the 11 X 15 program wants from the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is to simply get spending in treatment programs up to $25 million in the proposed State budget. Gaughan believes that $75 million would be a more realistic figure if we were to do justice to these vulnerable people in our prisons—even that a mere fraction of what we spend on our State prison system in total.
The long view of this issue is the great injustice of our “so called” justice system—a system that is so distorted and racially unjust that it makes the majority of black men in Milwaukee County in particular into criminals instead of productive human beings. It harms women in prison who are adequate if not good mothers—whose kids still want mommy to be there for them and locks them up when they need treatment for their chemical dependency much more. Treatment sets the offender on a path toward being in a much better position to both provide restitution to anyone hurt in a property crime and to become employed and not putting more pressure on the taxpayer.
Marc Mauer the author of Race to Incarcerate and the Director of the Sentencing Project sees clearly how the Prison-Industrial Complex or what Struggles for Justice has referred to as the U.S. Injustice System destroys lives and destroys families too. Mauer sees prisoners as economic commodities where states build prisons in rural areas where land is cheap and the prison system itself becomes a job producer and economic stimulus of the worst kind. That does not include the trend to farm out prisoners to private for profit firms more interested in the bottom line than actual justice and the incarceration of prisoners in a humane and safe way—not to mention a Constitutional way honoring due process under law.
The prison incarceration boom we have been living with in the last twenty plus years is not a product of rising crime rates. “While rising crime rates from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s (in large part a function of the” baby boom” generation coming of age) helps to explain the early part of this rise, since 1980 the prison expansion has been primarily a result of “get tough” policies,” Mauer says. On the Federal level and now the State level too we have been sending more people to prison for ever longer periods of time.
Again it is important to point out that no one among the reform movement here wants to release violent offenders or serious repeat offenders who would be a danger to the public safety and whose crimes are so heinous or so destructive of private property that they must remain incarcerated.
Yet, it is the large number of non-violent, often first-time offenders caught up in the drug war and mandatory sentencing policies in force since the 1980’s or 1990’s. numbers of black and Latino populations live to apply the heat in the war on drugs.
The result is a prison population that reflects a terrible racial bias. The essence of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is that the Federal government has funneled ever more money to State and local law enforcement that have in tern focused on urban areas where large —racial injustice so huge that it is patently race-based in its application. Alexander uses legions of studies, reports, and statistics to tell her story how a new Jim Crow like system employees the criminal justice system to control people of color where the old system no longer is permitted by law due to the gains in civil rights during the movement peak in the 1950’s and 1960’s landmark civil rights legislation.
Struggles for Justice lifts up the people who are so terribly harmed by these policies and what has truly become a prison for profit, racially determinative, U.S. Injustice System.
What is so self-evident here is that a radical change in our criminal justice prison policies toward restitution and treatment for non-violent offenders is both fiscally more sound and socially just as well. It is time to listen to those advocating programs like 11 X 15 in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Lawmakers tasked with making prison policy have that rare opportunity to both relieve the overburdened taxpayer and do what is right and good and just at the very same time.