Citizen-Times, 7/2011

All politicians assume that their constituents want them to be “tough on crime.” Elections sometimes become who’s-tougher sweepstakes.  Chances are, you would say you want your elected officials to be tough on crime.

As a result, today the North Carolina prison system houses ?34,000 inmates – four times more than in 1973.  This year 23,000 prisoners will be released into North Carolina society.  And within three years, X percent of them will be rearrested for a new crime and X percent will be back in prison.  Only one percent of prisoners will remain there all their lives.  The other 99 percent will be released at some point.

For this, we pay between X and X a year per prisoner per year, depending on the prison facility. And you recently paid for three new prisons at $100 million a pop, and the legislature has approved the construction of three more.  Total cost?   X

Is this what you want? I don’t think so.  When you say, “Be tough on crime,” I don’t think you’re saying, “Lock ‘em up and send me the bill.”  I think you’re really saying, “Make my community safe.”  Putting criminals behind bars is not the final destination.  –Public safety is.—  And I don’t think we’re on track to safety.

Consider this: In the “War on Drugs,” African-Americans make up 13 percent of drug users.  They make up 36 percent of those arrested for drug possession.  And they make up 63 percent of those actually sent to prison for drug possession.

What does that say to you? There’s some sort of racial skewing, yes of course.  But it also says to me that a huge percentage of drug users are continuing their lives as always.  We get the blacks; we don’t get the rest.  To the degree that drug use is tied to crime – and it is – then my community is not safe.  (This is a huge subject I hope to write on further another time.)

I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that there are four questions we must answer as a society regarding our criminal justice system.

One: why do we put people in prison?

Two: who do we have in prison and are they the ones who should be there?

Three:   what are the proper sentences for those who should be in prison?

And four:   how much prison can we afford?

These are gigantic subjects. Intense study has been done on all three, and wise recommendations are out there.  I write now because it is extremely important that the general public understand what’s going on.  Politicians will do what you say.  And everybody, from extreme right to extreme left, has to reach consensus, so “tough on crime” stops being a political football.

First and most basic, how much prison can we afford? Theoretically, apart from other considerations, we can keep building prisons and putting away more and more criminals for longer sentences. But to do so, we must deny funds to other things in the state budget that deserve to happen.

As Governor 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. Are we willing to spend an average of $23,000 a year to warehouse law-breakers while we cut other budget items?

I answer no. I don’t like the release-return revolving door.  It’s bad business.  Rather than stretching our budget to build new prisons, we should be spending money – and stretching our imaginations – to find the best ways to release prisoners and keep them released.

During an Oversight Hearing on Criminal Offender Reentry and Protecting Children from Criminal Recidivists, Republican Congressman Howard Coble 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.”

In the 1990s North Carolina was a national leader imprison reform.  We achieved an enviable balance between meting out justice and staying within our means.  This is not true today.  And it won’t be as long as lawmakers are looking over their shoulders imagining that voters will think them soft on crime if they begin asking whether we’re getting our money’s worth from the criminal justice system as they’ve designed it.

We need an electorate educated in the why’s, who’s, how longs of criminal justice. If we achieve that, our lawmakers can roll up their sleeves instead of automatically raising their hands to vote for new prisons.