Criminal justice reform is a perennial issue for lawmakers, but there are a few factors that are making this issue one that urgently needs addressing – now.
It’s no secret that President Trump is trying to cast himself as a strong “law and order” kind of president, with all of his talk about rounding up illegal immigrants, and being tough on crime. One problem that he’s failing to address is one that politicians have been kicking down the road for years (or intentionally attempting to hide from public view.) We have a prison overcrowding problem in most states, and it is mostly related to three issues – monetary incentives for police to arrest non-violent criminals, three strike rules that force long prison sentences for those crimes, and an aging prison population that is sapping resources.
Since the Nixon and Reagan administrations, the public has been told that drugs are priority one, and drug users are no different from high-level drug dealers – they’re all criminals. There are government programs that pay law enforcement and prison systems based on arrest and incarceration rates, so there is a strong economic incentive for the entire criminal justice system to get as many drug users behind bars as possible. That has included an undercover police officer tricking an autistic child into selling weed, and a man serving over 13 years in prison for possessing two joints. To place that in proper perspective, consider the fact that there is a man who abducted a 17-year-old girl and took her across multiple state lines to live with him as a sex slave, and he is serving just 2 years in federal prison thanks to a plea agreement. By itself, most would consider that a miscarriage of justice, but this wasn’t the first time this person ran afoul of the law when it comes to sex with young people.
That means in our current criminal justice system, simply possessing joints is apparently a far more heinous crime than kidnapping and sex crimes involving teens.
Because we’ve been operating on that logic for many years now, we are facing another problem in our prisons – too many geriatric prisoners. The Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” so in order to keep aging inmates behind bars, we have to create geriatric wards, or essentially nursing homes behind bars. Caring the aged is expensive outside of prison walls, and is worse within them. Our options are fairly limited, and the most economical one is to release aging prisoners before they need a great deal of medical care behind bars. This should be the obvious solution, if we were operating on the concept that people should be in prison to prevent them doing further harm to others.
If preventing people from doing harm to others was the primary reason for incarceration, there wouldn’t be drug users or low-level drug dealers who deal just to be able to feed their own habits in prison. We would be building more drug rehabilitation centers, and leaving the cells that would have held drug users open for people who commit crimes that actually hurt others – like the man who abducted that teenager. But, the reality is that our government is paying large sums of money to put people in prison for decades over minor drug charges that do not involve violence at all. Are we a nation that needs to put these people behind bars, while letting people who do real harm to others back out after just a few years? What do you think our priorities should be?