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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Exploding the myths surrounding America's incarceration problem

April 05, 2021 - 12:00 PM



America likes to put its citizens behind bars. Indeed, “Lock her (or him) up!” is second only to chants of “We’re number one!” in America. Turns out, America leads the world - by a wide margin - in matters of incarceration.

As you read this, just under 2.4 million people are locked up across 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities and 80 Indian Country jails...and a smattering of military prisons, state psychiatric hospitals and territorial prisons.

Putting folks behind bars is as American as apple pie and baseball. Incarceration is a woven fabric in the crazy-quilt culture that believes in both forgiveness and retribution. Puritanical Americans have never been reticent to punish their fellow citizens...and not just for violent crimes.

Life-changing - and often life-ending - penalties are meted out every day in America for lesser crimes. Harsh penalties have little positive effect on recidivism, according to decades of prison statistics. But America’s prevalent “vengeance is mine” philosophy has contributed to a punishing judicial the tune of about $50,000 per person...per year.

That’s about $120 Billion...every year. There’s nothing else a reasonable person would buy or invest in and be happy with that kind of utility or return.

Don’t get me wrong...those who murder, rape, harm children or commit other violent crimes - especially more than once - deserve punishment. No one argues that point. But most are entitled to rehabilitation, as well. Besides, violent criminals comprise just 20 percent of the folks locked up in America.

Rehabilitation - if it ever existed - doesn’t  provide offenders with what they and society need...from counselling to vocational training. America just doesn’t seem to have the stomach...or more precisely the guts...for giving someone who runs afoul of the law much chance at redemption.

The point is...and somehow - like sensible gun control and universal healthcare - the facts get lost amid the political mis- and dis-information and a get-even culture you don’t see anywhere else in the world.

So, let’s start with some facts...and explode some myths...yes, myths, about incarceration in America.

Myth One...Releasing and not sentencing non-violent drug offenders would solve the problem of mass incarcerations. No, not all all. Eight out of every ten people behind bars are there for reasons unrelated to drugs.

Myth Two...Get rid of private prisons and you end the problem of mass incarceration. Again, no, not at all. Less than nine percent of those behind bars are in private prisons. As parasitical as private prisons are...and it would be better to be rid of them...they aren’t the cause of mass incarceration.

Myth Three...People behind bars for violence and sex crimes are too dangerous to ever release. Actually, those are among the least likely to be re-arrested. In fact, those convicted of rape or sexual assault are 20 percent less likely to ever commit another violent crime than all other offence categories combined.

Of course, mass murderers and the most heinous criminals are another story. Otherwise, age is the primary predictor of violence...and keeping someone who committed even a violent crime behind bars for 50 years not only doesn’t make society is much more costly.

Myth Four...Prisons provide American companies with cheap labour. Actually, less than one percent of those behind bars work for companies through the federal government’s Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, which requires payment of minimum wages. Another six percent of those incarcerated in state prisons earn much less...anywhere from 86 cents to $3.45 a day.

In Florida, every time I make a trip to the county landfill a dozen female prisoners in stripe uniforms are handling the recycling. Recently, I couldn’t resist and asked a prisoner what got her locked up?

“Passing a bad check for $1,750,” she said, adding, “I earn a dollar a day. One year sentence...maybe out in nine months.” 

Less than two years ago, Florida raised the threshold amount of a felony -  property crimes of theft, robbery and burglary - from $300 to $750. Today, Florida judges can put someone away for up to five years for a $750 property crime.  And with more “conservative” judges in place in the past four years...that means longer sentences. Some states’ thresholds for felon status are as low as $200...others up to $2,000. New York is pushing for $5,000 in a bill currently before the state legislature.

Property crimes aren’t higher in states with higher thresholds, so it would make sense for states to raise them to $2,000 or more. Legislators understand the need to adjust tax brackets and Social Security benefits for inflation, so the same rationale should apply to adjusting felony theft thresholds.

Why? Because getting a felony on your record is a death-blow for offenders who do time - pay their debt to society in full - and then find going straight almost impossible with all the state-imposed road blocks. The stigma of a felony follows them like a shadow, so most have trouble getting a decent job, trouble finding housing, trouble getting licensed as a plumber, electrician or hairdresser.

It makes sense to treat a few hundred thousand felons in prisons as people guilty of misdemeanours...and have them pay restitution and serve community service. Then they can become useful citizens again, pay taxes and not be labelled for life as a felon by those who relish never-ending punishment.

I won’t even get into the injustices inflicted on minorities and poor people in America...the subject of a future column. But suffice it to say, among the hundreds of thousands of people behind bars...a grossly disproportionate number are Black or Hispanic and/or poor.

Another area that seems unfair is the 631,000 Americans in local jails...470,000 of them not even convicted of a crime...with 320,000 of them charged for non-violent crimes. Most spend one to three years in jail awaiting trials and sentencing. Seems like ankle monitors make more sense. It is telling that only two countries worldwide - the United States and the Philippines - have a for-profit bail bonds system. It is - at best - a punishing system within a punishing-driven judicial system.

I sometimes hear people complain that criminals in Canada don’t serve enough sentences aren’t for life. That might be true...but we don’t want what America has. You see, simply putting people behind bars isn’t justice.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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