This past week, I met a Latino fellow who had done some time, about three months in jail, for a non-violent drug related crime. He had been caught with three ounces of marijuana, twenty Vicodin pills and an ounce of cocaine. He didn't have the resources for a private attorney so his public defender represented him. In a plea bargain, he got six months in country lockup for a felony possession of narcotics charge and he served his time.
It turns out he was very interesting to talk to, because until then, he had been a law abiding citizen. And if you saw him on the street, you'd never know this man was a felon. I always thought these guys were seedy, easy to pick out of a crowd types of people. He was an engineer. And he really poses no threat to us. But his "crime" did cost a lot of tax payer money to keep him behind bars. It got me to thinking, especially when I read this article in Friday's HuffPo.
Chris Kirkham reports:
Because of punitive drug laws, drug offenders still make up more than 46 percent of the federal prison system, according to the Department of Justice. Immigrants are the third-highest category of offenders, at 11 percent. But this year, more than 60 percent of all federal criminal convictions have been for immigration-related crimes, federal data show.
So, with a little help from the National Association of State Budget Officers, I found this interesting bit of information:
In 2007, around $74 billion was spent on corrections. The total number of inmates in 2007 in federal, state, and local lockups was 2,419,241. That comes to around $30,600 per inmate.
Let's put that in perspective:
In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education..... The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.
I understand the need for incarceration, especially for violent crimes. The guy or gal who embezzled money, received child pornography or sold some marijuana doesn't quite rank up there as the same risk as armed thieves, rapists, and killers.
Here are some numbers from the Office of National Drug Control Policy:
Violent crime was not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States from 1980 to 2003. Violent crime rates had been relatively constant or declining over those decades. The prison population was increased primarily by public policy changes causing more prison sentences and lengthening time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing, "three strikes" laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release.
Maybe there's some logic there -- book more of them and keep them longer. Well, we do need to be protected.
These policies were championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, but instead yielded high rates of confinement for nonviolent offenders. Nearly three quarters of new admissions to state prison were convicted of nonviolent crimes. 49 percent of sentenced state inmates were held for violent offenses.
Huh? Our policies are increasing the number of non-violent offenders? At $50K per prisoner, per year? I'm not so sure I like that. The huge increase in what we tax payers are coughing up and seeing spent is money to incarcerate mostly drug users, sellers, and undocumented men and women. In many cases, people who've committed one of two crimes -- a drug offense or crossing the border without the proper papers. These non-violent discretions hardly call for multi-year incarcerations. I'm getting a whiff of scam here -- and I'm feeling like the victim.
Again, from Chris Kirkham's expose:
The Federal government is embarking on an unprecedented campaign to criminally prosecute undocumented immigrants crossing the border. The result: A new wave of non-violent offenders are flooding the nation's prisons.
"This is the crime du jour," said Judith Greene, director of the nonprofit Justice Strategies, which has focused on the private prison industry's growing reliance on incarcerating undocumented immigrants. "It's the drug war all over again. It's what's driving the market in federal prisons."
Damn, that translates to a lot of money. My money. Your money. Smells like someone's making big bucks here. But whom?
Immigration offenders represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the federal prison population, providing a lucrative market for private prison corporations that largely control these inmates in the system. Over the last decade, revenue from the federal prison system has more than tripled for the GEO Group and nearly doubled for Corrections Corp. of America -- the two companies that dominate the private prison industry.
This is outrageous. We're supporting private prisons? For undocumented entrants to our country? Isn't it cheaper to just deport them -- which the Obama administration is doing at a record pace? I'm not a big fan of deportation, but I do realize that a "crime" has been committed. But do I have to overpay for their discretion? I think not.
Let's consider some alternatives, and more money for education and less for rounding up undocumented people who are not costing us nearly what the US government is charging us to incarcerate and deport them.
Some common sense here -- Prisons in California (alone) are allocated $9.6 billion. Education in California receives $5.7 billion. I'm for tipping the scales the other way.
Yes, by all means incarcerate violent criminals, and probably recidivists of non-violent crimes. But let's not put drug users and undocumented visitors in the same cages or categories. We all expect protection. Not subsidies for private prisons. With a sane justice code, we wouldn't be building more prisons, we'd be building more schools.
Ask yourself this, do we need more prisoners of non-violent crimes or more teachers and schools which lower the numbers of violent crimes? Prevention, not overpriced incarceration, is my suggestion.
Speak up and speak out. Revise justice. Improve education.