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Clete Wetli: An Alabama Liberal on Mass Incarceration's Steep Price Tag

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Clete Wetli
(image by Elizabeth Dawson)

My guest today is Clete Wetli, currently a counselor at at Huntsville Recovery, Inc. in Huntsville, Alabama. Welcome to OpEdNews, Clete. You recently wrote an op-ed on mass incarceration. Where did your interest in this topic come from?

CW: Well, this is a subject that has interested me for a long time as a substance abuse counselor because I've seen so many lives destroyed due to our government's failed "War on Drugs". Unfortunately, we spend obscene amounts of money on illegal drug interdiction and incarceration and comparatively very little on treatment and rehabilitation. The problem gets worse in states like Alabama where addicts who have demonstrated long-term recovery and rehabilitation can't get their records expunged which affects their ability to find stable employment. Essentially, we punish people excessively and then give them no real opportunity to change their lives. Our penchant for incarceration and the proliferation of cheap and often unnecessary employer background checks is actually a significant factor in rising rates of recidivism. Furthermore, sentencing remains racially biased and disproportionately impacts the poor. Our nation leads the world now in incarcerating its own citizens. In Alabama, one out of every one hundred and fifty people is in jail or prison. This is unacceptable and has far reaching social and economic consequences.

JB: That's a pretty comprehensive indictment, Clete. It's hard to know where to start. Let's talk first about the recent revelations at Alabama's Tutwiler Prison, which you mention in your op-ed. What are you referring to exactly?

CW: There have been numerous allegations of human rights violations including rape and unwarranted,extreme physical and mental abuse perpetrated by correctional officers against female prisoners. These charges have led to disciplinary action and the firing of some prison guards, intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice, and multiple civil and criminal lawsuits against prison officials and the State of Alabama. The sad part is that this has been going on for over two decades and these charges have been ignored until the Department of Justice threatened to take over Alabama's prison system. Not only did prison wardens ignore the charges, in some cases they were the actual perpetrators or accomplices in the alleged criminal activity. The systemic abuse of prisoners finally became so obvious, heinous, and pervasive that Alabama had no choice but to finally take some action to correct the problems at Tutwiler. Politically, there's been a lot of grandstanding, but Alabama's Governor Bentley has shown no real leadership to remedy the situation.

JB: Prisoners are the classic captive audience, I'm afraid, so vulnerable to abuse of all sorts. You point out that regarding policy, we're tough on crime rather than smart on crime. Why is that? It's a strategy that clearly isn't working. And, to add insult to injury, it's stupendously expensive, making it the worst of both worlds.

CW: There are a couple of significant factors at play that have resulted in poor public policy. First, the "War on Drugs" gave rise to the ridiculous concepts of "zero tolerance" and mandatory minimum sentencing. This limited the ability of judges to base sentencing on the individual circumstances of a case and gave rise to "one-size-fits-all" justice. Furthermore, policy makers ignored the disease model of addiction because media stories about addicts being rehabilitated are far less exciting than stories about busting "Miami Vice" style drug dealers complete with shoot-outs and footage of seized contraband. Also, the whole paradigm of crime and punishment in the United States has become a big industry. Next, politicians have made it a perennial cliche to promise a fear-driven public that they could be tougher on crime, especially illicit drugs, than their opponents. You see, it sounds great to say in a political ad that you're making the streets safer. If you reject the disease model of addiction and view the world from the lens of social Darwinism, it's very easy to adopt a mentality of "lock 'em up and throw away the key". Another factor is that many of the laws that carry stiff penalties are either blatantly racist or designed to be harsher toward the poor. Why is the sentence longer for crack versus powder cocaine? Why are sentences longer for robbery but shorter for white collar embezzlement? It's been easier for politicos to pitch tougher sentences and building more prisons than it has been for them to talk about treatment and rehabilitation. We think that harsh penalties are a deterrent and that treatment is ineffective when, in reality, the reverse is true.

JB: I get everything you're saying, Clete. It has its own sad, misguided logic. But, besides for everything else, this explosion of the prison population is going to bankrupt us sooner or later, morally as well as financially. I understand that there are some private corporations running prison facilities that have contracts with various states that demand a certain percentage of occupancy, guaranteeing themselves a hefty income but penalizing the public, many of whom will get swept up simply in order to fill that quota. Can you comment on that?

CW: It's a fact that quotas drive police decision making when it comes to arrests and the same could be said in the judicial system for convictions and sentencing. I heard recently that a few police departments are finally getting rid of quotas that set arbitrary numbers for the amount of arrests made. Unfortunately, they are the exception, not the rule. Of course, large arrests numbers translate into more revenue through fines and higher conviction numbers. Prison should not be a "for profit" institution. Sadly, the privatization of prisons is nothing more than thinly-veiled corporate welfare and the institutionalization of modern day slavery. I say this because privatization creates perverse economic incentives to keep prisons full and these companies also contract with other private industries that utilize cheap, inmate labor to manufacture their products. Inmates get paid practically nothing, but the companies make tons of money. Governments love the idea of privatization because it shields them from liability and accountability.

JB: Yes, the power of the profit motive. There's a truly frightening factoid about the number of people of color incarcerated compared to the days of slavery. Can you pull that out for us, Clete?

CW: From the time when the United States was thirteen colonies until the end of the Civil War, there were about 600,000 slaves imported to America. Today, there are roughly 2.5 million people incarcerated in the U.S. and about 40% are black. In fact, about one out of every three African-American males between the ages of 20-29 is currently under some sort of criminal supervision whether it's jail, prison, probation, or parole. Black males between the ages of 30-34 have the highest incarceration rate of any race or ethnicity. This is alarming when you consider that African-Americans account for about 14% of the overall population. The truth is that many of the laws that have been imposed during the "War on Drugs" were designed to specifically impact the black community and the poor. It's become commonplace to be stopped for a DWB ("Driving While Black") and this blatant racism is definitely seen in conviction rates and sentencing.

JB: So, presuming that we don't as a nation want to go bankrupt, and presuming that somehow we can bring about change, how do we go about bringing what would have to be a systemic overhaul? It's a tall order, to be sure, imperative, but a tall order indeed.

CW: That is a huge and complex question. First, you get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing and allow judges to use discretion again in which they have latitude in sentencing. Second, you find alternative punishments, rather than incarceration, particularly for non-violent crimes that emphasize restitution and rehabilitation. Third, you demilitarize police departments and change the way that they interact with the public. They are public servants, not an occupying military force. Of course, there are other cultural factors that play into this paradigm. We obviously need some type of gun control that emphasizes background checks, bans assault rifles and eliminates large capacity ammunition clips. Also, some recreational drugs should be decriminalized and our dollars should be spent on more effective prevention and treatment modalities. We should review our laws and sentencing and remove those that have obvious racial or economic bias. The privatization of prisons and parole/ probation should also be eliminated. The answers are out there, we need to elect politicians that have the courage to implement real change and utilize evidence-based solutions, rather than engage in fear-based rhetoric.

JB: That's a pretty extensive laundry list, Clete. Have you seen any encouraging signs of growing awareness in Alabama or beyond? I know you've done many, many op-ed pieces on this and related topics. Anyone listening out there?

CW: I do believe that politicians and policy makers are finally having a moment of clarity by realizing that our current system is unsustainable, not to mention ridiculously expensive. In Alabama, the media firestorm that has shed light on the abuses at Tutwiler is definitely causing some legislators to change their tune about sentencing reform and prison reform. I think that one of the barriers to change is public perception. Politicians, like former President Reagan, were successful in convincing the public that the "War on Drugs" was necessary and, over time, have led people to believe that it has been successful. However, more people are beginning to realize the truth and the public is starting to realize the enormity of this public policy failure.

JB: I understand that you make regular appearances in the local media - television as well as radio. What kind of reception do your ideas and opinions get?

CW: These are issues that I bring up regularly and I find that many people are woefully uninformed about politics and public policy. I think people tend to be swayed more by partisan rhetoric and fear than by facts, but I try to help people understand that many of these issues are nuanced and complex. I really believe in FDR's Second Bill of Rights and the concept of community. Perhaps, the greatest issue we face in America is a toxic mixture of ignorance and apathy. Folks don't want to vote, get involved, or raise their voice until something directly impacts them personally. It's tough being a liberal in a deeply conservative state, but I think people are listening to what I have to say and they are realizing that many problems require pragmatic solutions, instead of partisan spin.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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