Why We Must Fix Our Prisons
By Senator Jim Webb
Publication Date: 03/29/2009
America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives.
Inmates at a facility in California, a state that spent almost $10 billion on corrections last year.
We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration. Twenty-five years ago, I went to Japan on assignment for PARADE to write a story on that country's prison system. In 1984, Japan had a population half the size of ours and was incarcerating 40,000 sentenced offenders, compared with 580,000 in the United States. As shocking as that disparity was, the difference between the countries now is even more astounding--and profoundly disturbing. Since then, Japan's prison population has not quite doubled to 71,000, while ours has quadrupled to 2.3 million.
The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under "correctional supervision," which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.
Our overcrowded, ill-managed prison systems are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear. Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard or, in some places, nonexistent, making it more difficult for former offenders who wish to overcome the stigma of having done prison time and become full, contributing members of society. And, in the face of the movement toward mass incarceration, law-enforcement officials in many parts of the U.S. have been overwhelmed and unable to address a dangerous wave of organized, frequently violent gang activity, much of it run by leaders who are based in other countries.
Some of you might already have received a plea from family members of prisoners or have someone you love in prison, yourself, asking you to write a letter to the US Sentencing Commission which will be making recommendations to Congress on May 1st concerning changes to current sentencing guidelines.
Currently there is a formula for the number of days off a sentence for good time served and the recommendation would be to increase the number of days that could be earned, thereby decreasing a sentence.
The impetus for this letter writing effort comes from suffering relatives of prisoners, worried each day for their safety, missing them terribly, and painfully aware of an immense disparity in justice that leaves many prisoners there for 10-30 years for a first non-violent offense.
Take your pent up anger over the endless list of injustices perpetrated on us, on the people of Iraq, on the prisoners at Guantanamo, and more, and write a letter on behalf of those being wrecked by our government who can be restored to life through simple justice.
The primary contact, is The Honorable Richard J. Hinojosa, who chairs the Sentencing Commission. Additionally, one can write to V.P. Biden, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia and your Senators and Congressmen.
Oped News makes it easy to reach your Senators through the action items below, even offering you a means to write your local paper on this issue. Use them all, but nothing has as much impact as a letter or fax because they are not only hard copy, but they must be counted and copied and shared with all members of the committee.
The advocacy group called "FedCURE" has alerted citizens about the recommendations of the commission. For more info, see their web site.
I regret leaving a small window for action, and enlist your help to write immediately. Letters can be whatever you wish or be copied from the sample letter below or can make changes in it, but they need to be sent now. How many lives can you save by restoring parole? How many children can be united with their parents, people who should never have been trapped so long and with no recourse no matter how hard they try to right?
Write a good letter for others' freedom. Let your friends know this matters.
And this, from a family member: "Imploringly ..."
The Honorable Richard J. Hinojosa
Chairman, United States Sentencing Commission
One Columbus Circle, NE
Suite 2-500, South Lobby
Washington, DC 20002-8002
Attention: Michael Courlander, Public Affairs Officer
Subject: Public Comment on Amendment of Federal Sentencing Guidelines
Dear Chairman Hinojosa:
I strongly urge the U.S. Sentencing Commission to adopt the public comments of FedCURE, submitted to the Commission on September 7, 2008. These recommendations call for amending the federal sentencing guidelines. Specifically, they call for reinstituting parole as well as reducing sentences by awarding "good time." In the interest of justice, fairness, equity, and less stress on the prison system, I further urge you to recommend these changes to Congress.
These amendments would include:
I. Insertion in the guidelines under Part B of Chapter 1, General Application Principles:
A new subsection, denoted as 1B1.14, called "Reduction in the Term of Imprisonment as a Result of Motion of the Chairman of the U. S. Parole Commission (Policy Statement)," which would allow the Commission to reduce a prison term (and impose a term of supervised release) and set a new release date for a delineated category of prisoners who have sentences longer than seven years; and
II. Insertion in the guidelines under Part B of Chapter 1, General Application Principles:
A new subsection, denoted as 1B1.15, called "Reduction in the Term of Imprisonment as a Result of Motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons (Policy Statement)," which would allow the Bureau of Prisons to reduce a prison term by awarding institutional good time (under a less restrictive formula than is currently in place) to prisoners who have demonstrated good behavior and/or superior programming achievement, or, in the view of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, have performed exceptionally meritorious service or performed duties of outstanding importance to the prison.
This amendment goes on to lay out the computation of such good time award. This allowance would also be given to prisoners who have, at the discretion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, performed "exceptionally meritorious service."
The recalculation of sentences shall be valid notwithstanding any statute to the contrary.
I fully and enthusiastically support FedCURE's public comment for all of the reasons enumerated therein.Click here.
While Cheney remains free and all of us are being stolen blind by people who will likely never see a day in prison or even fines, let's take a moment to seek justice for those at the other end of the stick - those rotting in a federal prison system that ceased a while ago to offer parole, that imposes lengthy mandated sentences for non-violent offenses, and no longer offers meaningful time off for good behavior.
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