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Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

Alex Stamm,
ACLU Center for Justice
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February 21, 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.

Virginia Prisons’ Aging Pains
Associate Director of the ACLU of Virginia Elizabeth Wong calls attention to the dramatic aging of Virginia’s prison population in her recent blog post. Twenty years ago, Virginia housed 900 elderly prisoners. Today, that number has skyrocketed to over 5,000. The story is the same in every state and federal prison system. A generation of tough-on-crime laws wielding long sentences has caused staggering numbers of prisoners to grow old behind bars. American prisons today house over 245,000 men and women older than 50. Keeping aging prisoners locked up is a bad deal for taxpayers — inmates over 50 are our most expensive and least dangerous prisoners. Read Elizabeth’s post to find out how Virginia legislators botched a chance for smart reform.

Florida Legislators Say No to Private Prisons
This week, Florida legislators voted against a bill that would have privatized 27 prisons and work camps. Despite claims that private prisons would cut costs to Florida taxpayers (here’s the New York Times on how private prisons sometimes cost more to operate than state-run prisons), legislators balked at the unholy marriage of profits and imprisonment. With private prisons off the table for now, Florida legislators avoided a major roadblock to considering reforms to sentencing and reentry that can save real money for their taxpayers and provide real benefits to their communities. As Julie Ebenstein of the ACLU of Florida put it in a press conference last week, “[P]rivate prisons make profits by keeping people in — filling prison beds — which makes for-profit prisons the enemy of sentencing reform and effective reentry.”

Private Prison Corporation Offers Cash In Exchange For State Prisons
Speaking of private prisons, the nation’s largest private prison company recently sent a letter to 48 governors offering to buy state-run prisons if they can be guaranteed to remain 90 percent full for 20 years. Consider for a moment what the Corrections Corporation of America is asking for when it requests a contractual guarantee for a given number of prisoners. What would it mean for a state to make good on that promise if crime dropped? Would it have to lock people up for longer than they deserve? Would it have to deny release to inmates who pose little public safety risk? Would it be moral for a state to make that guarantee? And if spending millions of dollars lobbying legislators works, then is it moral for private prison corporations to do so?

Why Massachusetts’ Potential Three Strikes Law Is A Bad Idea
Under current Massachusetts law, only a murder conviction can land you in jail for life with no possibility of parole. Now, House and Senate legislators are debating two versions of a three strikes bill that would, among other things, eliminate parole for many third-time offenders and mean life without parole for many third-time offenders who would face lesser sentences under current law. By mandating maximum sentences and eliminating parole, the proposed law prevents judges from meting out proportional sentences and parole boards from releasing inmates that pose little threat to the community. Massachusetts prisons are already at 143 percent of their capacity, and strengthening their three strikes law only stands to worsen their overcrowding problem. A group of 100 Unitarian ministers are among the latest to voice their opposition to the bills.

Economic Benefits of Employing Formerly Incarcerated Individuals in Philadelphia
Programs such as in-prison education and vocational training cost money, and some opponents say it makes little sense to spend money to benefit the people who have harmed us. But it’s important to remember that investing in the success of released inmates is beneficial to the community as well. Because released prisoners who find employment are far less likely to commit new crimes, investing in their success makes our communities safer. In addition, employed prisoners add value to our economy and pay taxes. Read this report from the City of Philadelphia, which shows that it pays to invest in prisoners’ return to the community.

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