Want to Lower the Prison Population?

Want to lower the prison population?
Don't build more beds, build lives

A new report says that Wisconsin needs to spend $1.2 billion
to upgrade its prison facilities, including adding 8,900 beds
to help with overcrowding.
The prison population in our state is somewhere around 22,000.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, "In 2008, over
7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole
at year-end--3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults."
The U.S. has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world.
Even taking into consideration those countries that don't properly report
the number of people it locks up, the numbers in America are staggering. Prison overpopulation has become a very real, very urgent problem in most states, so I can't say that it's a surprise to hear about it happening right here in Wisconsin.
That it's not unexpected, however, doesn't make it any less appalling.
The problem, of course, is that this is a complicated problem with a dizzying array of contributing factors. And everyone has a different opinion about how to best go about solving it. Some folks who fancy themselves real hard asses like to talk about privatizing the prison system to reduce costs, as well as throwing the biggest book at even the most non-violent of offenders. Others fall on the exact opposite end of the spectrum.
Me? I land somewhere decidedly in the middle. I think we put too many people in jail, and I think we operate our jails too much like points-of-no-return as opposed to the houses of reform they were supposed to be.
In terms of population, this is definitely a case where less is more.
The fact that some one million inmates are in for non-violent offenses, too, offends me. Simply having the bad fortune of living with or visiting someone involved in the drug trade can be enough to put you behind bars for the better part of your life. It just doesn't make sense. Don't believe me? Read a few of the personal stories listed on the Families Against Mandatory Minimums website.
Our sentencing rules need serious reform. So do our attitudes about things like marijuana, as well as toward addiction in general. Throwing people with a disease, or a relatively harmless plant, into jail is both unjust and wasteful. Taking a long, hard look at our sentencing policies would likely go a long way toward putting a dent in our bloated prison population.
What might also help is a solid early release program for non-violent offenders who do deserve some jail time. Gov. Doyle attempted to do that when he passed Wisconsin Act 28 as part of last year's budget. The provision was ostensibly supposed to create a system of early-release in order to help stem the increases in inmate population we've been seeing in recent years.
And while it does end the double-bunking policy that has caused so much trouble (a good move), it still misses the mark. The problem with the act was that it attempted the early release policy without much structure or forethought. As pointed out at the time by Zachary Wisniewski at Blogging Blue, the types of offenses now eligible for early release simply don't make sense:
...under the new early release provisions, an individual convicted of aggravated battery to an unborn child is statutorily eligible to earn early release from prison as well as an early discharge from extended supervision once released from prison, while an individual convicted of a nonviolent offense such as misconduct in public office is not eligible for early release from prison or an early discharge from extended supervision. Now don't get me wrong – I'm not arguing misconduct in public office – or any other felony, for that matter – aren't serious offenses, but they're certainly not as seriously assaultive as a crime like aggravated battery to an unborn child.
There's a full list of the other offenses that fall under the new early release program at the same post linked above. They include things like stalking, false imprisonment, and physical abuse of a child. Those are decidedly not non-violent offenses and I have no idea how they ended up on this list.
But say we did (eventually) get the early-release program right. That's not enough. We need to couple that with comprehensive rehabilitation and reentry programs that help people returning to society with things like education, job preparedness, finding a place to live, etc. Just turning people out onto the streets does little to nothing to prevent recidivism—which, after all, is supposed to be the point of putting people in jail for less than a life sentence.
Thankfully, there are such programs in place in many of our state's detention facilities: everything from a successful MATC accredited horticultural program to high school equivalency programs and even a prison library program.
Kyle Nabilcy, a prison librarian, has witnessed the success of the program first-hand. "Anecdotally," he notes, "I can tell you that very few of the men who have worked for me as inmate clerks have returned to a similar or higher security level of incarceration, or reoffended. I can only think of two out of probably 30-35 in almost seven years."
Nabilcy also went on to suggest a different use for any state funds earmarked for prisons. "I would love to see some of that money going into improving the technological infrastructure of DOC. More and more of the educational programs are digital, and our resources are getting more and more out of date every day."
Once again, prevention and education seem to be the most important tools for fixing the problem.

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