Citizen-Times, January 2005
All politicians assume their constituents want them to be “tough on crime.” Elections sometimes become who’s-tougher sweepstakes.
Chances are, you would say that’s what you want.
As a result, the North Carolina prison system houses 36,000 inmates today – four times more than in 1980. This year 23,000 of these prisoners will be released into North Carolina society.
And within five years, 51% of them will likely be rearrested; 42% will likely be back in prison.
For this temporary housing of criminals we pay $23,000 a year per prisoner per year. And we recently constructed four new prisons at $100 million a pop. The General Assembly has approved the construction of two more.
Is this what mean by “tough on crime”? I don’t think so. I don’t think you mean, “Lock ‘em up for a while and send me the bill.” I think you’re really saying, “Make my community safe.” Putting criminals behind bars is not our ultimate goal, is it?
We could theoretically keep building prisons and putting more criminals away for longer sentences and writing checks. But do we want to do that — at the expense of other state needs, like education, roads, children’s services, Medicaid?
As Mike Easley worked the room at a fund-raiser last fall in Madison County, I asked him, “Governor, what are your plans for prison reform in your second term?”
His answer surprised me. “That’s a good question,” he said. “All I know is, we can’t afford what we’re doing now.”
That’s where everything begins and ends. A budget figure of $880 million a year (plus the cost of new prisons) is too much, especially when we aren’t getting the results we need.
What’s more, the release-return revolving door is crushing lives and families and whole subcultures of our society. The status of the status quo is bad.
We have to ask: Why do we put people in prison? Are we putting people in prison that should be punished and/or treated otherwise? Are sentences appropriate? Are we using people’s time in prison to prepare them for release?
During an oversight hearing in October, Republican Congressman Howard Coble of Greensboro said, “ During my tenure in Congress, I have consistently supported policies that are tough on crime….I also believe, however, that we should craft federal policies that enable states and localities to assist individuals leaving the prison system and reentering society instead of inadvertently tying the hands of those groups and people who want to help in that transition and those ex-offenders who want to be successful, law-abiding citizens in society.”
These are gigantic issues. Intense study has been done on all of them, other states are working toward solutions, and wise recommendations are out there.
In the 1990s North Carolina was a national leader. We achieved an enviable balance between meting out appropriate justice and staying within our means.
This is not true today. And it won’t be as long as lawmakers fear that they will fight a “soft on crime” tag in the next election. They know about the studies and the enlightened recommendations of the American Bar Association and advisory boards within North Carolina — but they won’t act until you tell them to.
I’m writing now because it is extremely important that the general public – that is, you — understand the why’s, who’s, how’s and how long’s of our criminal justice system.
Anything that’s done on this in Raleigh has to be bipartisan. Everybody, from extreme right to extreme left, has to reach consensus. If they do, our lawmakers can roll up their sleeves instead of automatically raising their hands to vote for new prisons.
How can you learn? The best way is to become a community volunteer at our area prisons. That’s what I did. Get to know inmates as flesh-and-blood people, most of whom want to change their lives. Help them do it. Help with GED programs. Take them to your church. Be their mentor.
If you can’t do that, go to Google and put in “North Carolina prisons” then a topic: recidivism, sentencing, alternatives, community, etc.
I volunteered to help in Jesus’ name (Matthew 25:35). In the process, these men have helped me. Do it.