Attorney General Jeff Sessions gets it wrong. On core issue after core issue — civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, police reform and particularly mass incarceration — he is a destructive force.
The United States locks up more people per capita than any country in the world. China, run by a brutal Communist Party that is paranoid about dissent and upheaval, doesn’t put people behind bars at the rate we do.
In the last years of the Obama administration, a bipartisan consensus formed about the need to reduce unnecessary imprisonment. Republicans signed on because it could save money. Democrats liked it because it offered hope that fewer lives would be destroyed for making a mistake.
Sessions, upon becoming attorney general, turned his back on this movement, instructing U.S. prosecutors to charge the most serious provable offenses. He has boosted private prisons, reinstated the federal asset forfeiture program and moved to lengthen drug sentences. Most recently, he instructed prosecutors to enforce U.S. laws making marijuana illegal, even in states that have legalized it such as Colorado and California. So much for Trump’s campaign pledge that he is a “states’ rights” supporter.
While Republicans protest that mass incarceration isn’t about race, you know it is certainly about race. People of color — African-Americans particularly — are a disproportionate part of those locked up. The institutionalized racial bias of our criminal injustice system is notorious and indisputable. Black fathers warn their sons about driving while black. Blacks are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be searched if stopped, more likely to be detained if searched, more likely to be charged if detained and more likely to be imprisoned if charged. Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men.
The result is shameful. In 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that black men have a staggering one in three chance of going to prison in their lifetimes. Having a record makes getting a decent job more difficult. Serving time makes that even worse. Many states still disenfranchise those convicted of a felony even after they have served their time. Michelle Alexander has termed this a new Jim Crow, yet another way to keep down the black vote.
Finding alternatives to incarceration, particularly for nonviolent crimes, should not be a partisan issue. And in Illinois, to some extent, it isn’t. Once elected, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner pledged to reduce the number incarcerated in the state by one-fourth by 2025. Recent reports suggest it is down by about 9 percent this year.
This isn’t due to any one reform. Prosecutors and judges are asked to use common sense in deciding whether to seek prison sentences. In Chicago, widespread use of “ankle bracelets” allows police to keep track of offenders without locking them up. Reducing waiting times for trial helps. In Chicago, a staggering nine of 10 people in jail are waiting for trial, not serving a sentence. Seven of 10 are charged with nonviolent crimes. The West Side Chicago neighborhood North Lawndale will host the first “restorative justice community court.” The court enables the offender and a victim to determine what an appropriate remedy would be — from community service to repayment of costs, resulting in both more social peace and fewer people in prison. And on fulfilling the agreement, the offender’s record is erased — a big plus for his or her future.
Reducing excessive incarceration is necessary but not sufficient. Those released from prison or avoiding prison need job training, jobs and affordable transportation. Some need drug rehab and psychological assistance. They need hope and a hand up, not simply a get out of prison card. The parallel is what happened with welfare. The repeal of welfare and its implementation in various states reduced the welfare rolls. However, it didn’t reduce poverty or the vulnerability of the impoverished mothers who were pushed off the rolls. They need job training, jobs, affordable transportation, child care, health care and more. And that hasn’t been forthcoming.
Young people make mistakes. They get in the wrong crowd; they grow desperate or cynical. Too many fall for drugs and gangs. We need a process that insures a mistake does not condemn them to a life of crime. An offender may be released from jail, but if his or her record keeps him or her from getting hired, the chances of returning to jail are high. Nearly 50 percent of ex-offenders in Illinois are back in prison within three years.
Reducing the number of people in jail would save a lot of money. Those savings could help defray the cost of education, training and transportation subsidy for those who are released. We need to invest more in these things as a society — for those coming out of high school as well as those coming out of prison. Instead of locking people up, we could decide to help them up. Surely that would make America better.
In the 1960s George Wallace vowed to stand in the schoolhouse door to keep African American children from getting in. Now Jeff Sessions is standing in the prison door to keep young people of color from getting out. Surely we can do better than that.