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Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights (02/22/2013)

Alex Stamm,
ACLU Center for Justice
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February 22, 2013

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature our some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we’ve spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.

Powerful Commentary and Interesting Scholarship from the Past Week

  • In the Washington Post this week, columnist George Will penned a strong critique of solitary confinement. Will correctly recognizes solitary confinement as torture, and recalls Charles Dickens’ impression of the practice in 1842:

I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

Will’s excellent column is worth a read in its entirety. Meanwhile, California continues to release prisoners from solitary confinement following its decision to amend the criteria for what constitutes gang involvement that will land a prisoner in an isolation unit.

  • This American Life aired Part One of its series about Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone 29 current and recent students were shot. In the piece, local youth describe neighborhoods in which gang activity is practically inescapable, and in which guns and violence surround the lives of even those who try to avoid it. For more, see NPR’s interview with one of the reporters.
  • In “Prison and the Poverty Trap”, The New York Times’ John Tierney looks at the social consequences of crime and imprisonment. Through the story of a family whose father who spent 20 years in prison, the article asks the reader to consider the balance between reducing crime and impairing the social mobility of poor communities.
  • Santa Clara School of Law’s W. David Ball discusses a structural driver of prison populations: who picks up the check. Mr. Ball observes that local officials—police, prosecutors, and district judges—drive criminal justice policy, but that states ultimately pay for policy choices that result in state imprisonment. He argues that this “free lunch problem” causes local officials to overuse prisons because they don’t internalize the costs.

Two Minor but Noteworthy Items from the Past Week

  • Illinois prisoners at the Shawnee Correctional Center and five other state prisons will be bunking in gyms in the coming weeks as part of the state’s ongoing struggle with overcrowding. Illinois prisons are currently at 148 percent of rated capacity, meaning that roughly half of its cells have more prisoners than they are designed to hold.
  • An Indiana woman was fired by Wal-Mart after stealing and eating a bag of Oreos on her shift, for which she was later charged with felony theft. The cookies only cost a few dollars, but because Indiana is the only state for which theft of any value is a felony, she is eligible to receive prison time for her crime. If the Indiana legislature passes HB 1006, theft of property valued at less than $750 will be classified as a misdemeanor offense.

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