We Need a Prison Alternative

James E. Causey
We need a prison alternative
Sept. 4, 2010
Do you feel safer because of this nation's tried-and-untrue, lock-'em-up policy?
I don't. The nation's get-tough-on-crime agenda isn't working. One in 100 Americans sits behind bars, but there has only been a 5% dip in crime over the last decade. In any cost-benefit analysis, that is little bang for the buck. There has to be a better way than locking up a disproportionate number of the nation's communities of color.
This happens so often that it is no longer shocking to hear stories of fathers and sons incarcerated at the same time.
Prosecuting attorney Mark S. Williams knows this scenario all too well. He once told me he has prosecuted fathers only to do the same thing to their sons years later.
He concludes that strong family units and kids with a passion for education are the key factors to breaking the prison cycle. Putting more people in prison doesn't get us anywhere near that mark. In fact, it's counterproductive.
It's hard to keep families intact when a father is serving 15 to life. Long-term, Wisconsin needs a funding shift from correctional facilities to education, both high quality early-childhood and public education.
Here's a key reason: We simply can't afford to keep building more prisons. There is a more cost-effective way to address this problem.
In 2008, Wisconsin corrections accounted for 8% of the state's general fund, outpacing the national average of 6.9%.
Prison costs are fixed and the only way to get costs down is by having fewer prisoners. That means identifying problem children early on and steering them away from negative influences that have all-too-well-known results.
Some kids are trapped. They live in areas infested by gangs and drugs. We need to give them access to boarding schools where they are surrounded by educators who push education and the love of knowledge 24 hours a day.
The argument against such residential schools is cost. Well, it costs $29,000 a year to house a prisoner. Let's put that money into programs that keep kids out of the system in the first place.
Prison costs drive Wisconsin's push for early release. From a financial standpoint, it makes sense to release non-violent criminals who will be released within a year anyway. But we need to have proper programs in place to help them succeed once they are on the other side of the wall.
Prisoners up for early release should have completed their GED before they are released from prison. They can get their GEDs while they are locked up; what else do they have to do?
More than 70% of those incarcerated dropped out of high school, and in this economy adults can't get a job even at a fast-food restaurant without that piece of paper.
After they are released, continuing their education should be part of their parole. Such a move would require a financial boost to re-entry programs that would help those released develop soft skills, as well as improve their literacy.
Nationally, education in the black community needs to be an issue addressed every bit as forcefully as civil rights issues were earlier. The NAACP should act accordingly. Locally, it needs to be the battle cry of Milwaukee Public Schools, the business community and parents. Collectively, we can't afford to fail our youth.
One in 18 of those between the ages of 20 and 34 in the black community are in jail or on parole or probation. That means one in nine of all African-Americans.
A recent study found the state's black graduation rate was 50%, compared with 92% for whites. MPS is the largest contributors to this statistic. It doesn't take much to figure out where to start on this drive for quality education.
District Attorney John Chisholm told me that a failing school system is "a prison pipeline."
And this is patently obvious. If they're educated, they're far less likely to become criminals. Perhaps if we smartened up as a community, we'd get serious about fixing this.
James E. Causey is a Journal Sentinel editorial writer and columnist. E-mail Twitter: jecausey

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