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Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

A pair of hands in handcuffs
A pair of hands in handcuffs
Alex Stamm,
ACLU Center for Justice
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March 16, 2012

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.

Addiction is an apt metaphor for our nation’s relationship to incarceration because we, like the addict, pursue incarceration even despite high costs, diminishing returns, and available solutions. Usually, I use this post to flag positive developments in our fight to kick the habit. But this week felt like a bit of a relapse. Despite the fact that the climate is right for smart reform and progress is being made in many states, this week’s (not-so-) highlights are reminders that we still have our work cut out for us.

Federal Criminal Cases at Record High; Drug Offenses Lead the Way
FY2011 saw more federal criminal defendants than any year before, and the most common among them (31 percent) were before judges for drug crimes. Wrong direction, Obama administration. Considering that we’re still staring down the barrel of a loaded budget crisis, we need to devote fewer resources to prosecuting drug offenders, not more.

West Virginia Prison Reform Bill Dies, Facilities Remain Overcrowded
West Virginia’s prisons have been overcrowded for almost a decade now, and four studies in the past three years have each told state legislators what needs to happen: send fewer nonviolent offenders to prison, expand probation and parole, and start using risk assessments in sentencing. Nonetheless, a bill that would have implemented some much-needed reforms died in the West Virginia House last week, meaning that W.Va. prisons will remain overcrowded. But don’t worry; the governor has commissioned another study.

Key Massachusetts Lawmaker Says Three Strikes Bill Agreement is In the Bank
The House chair of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Judiciary Committee produced a new draft of the “three-strikes” legislation that’s been the subject of much debate, and he predicts that the conference committee will reach agreement on a bill to recommend for passage. Among other provisions, the new draft keeps the Senate’s reduced mandatory minimums for some drug offenses and downsizes the “school zone” within which drug offenses carry mandatory minimums terms. The new draft also mandates no-parole maximum sentences for defendants with prior convictions for designated crimes. Negotiations continue in the conference committee that’s attempting to reconcile the very different Senate and House versions of the bill.

Illinois Corrections Cuts Include Reductions to Drug Treatment, Job training
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s cuts to the corrections budget might look good in the short run, but they create long-term problems. For one, prison closures will require the state to shoehorn prisoners into fewer facilities, which will decrease safety both inside and outside the prison. For another, the governor is cutting drug treatment and job training programs, each of which are proven to reduce recidivism. Cutting those programs may save money today, but it’ll cost even more money tomorrow to re-arrest, re-prosecute and re-incarcerate the inmates those programs could have kept from reoffending.

CCA’s Unsettling Investor Presentation
Barclays’ analyst Manav Patnaik sent Business Insider the investor pitch for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), complete with a slideshow in which CCA claims to operate “in an industry with positive investment characteristics.” While mass incarceration might look like opportunity to CCA’s CEO, there’s nothing remotely positive about it.

CORRECTION AND UPDATE: The original version of this post claimed that Massachusetts House Judiciary Chairman Eugene O’Flaherty predicted that the three strikes bill would pass. It is more accurate to say that Rep. O’Flaherty claimed that the conference committee would reach an agreement on some version of the three strikes bill. That paragraph has also been updated to include more details about differences in the House and Senate bills, and where the bill is in the legislative process.

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