Heard a timely interview today with former prosecutor and onetime felon Paul Butler, who’s now a law professor at George Washington University. In a new book, Let’s Get Free, he argues that if you want to reduce crime you have to send fewer people to prison. Counterintuitive? Maybe. But I think his argument — that there are other ways of dealing with nonviolent offenders than locking them up — is dead on.
When I first started teaching I was naive perhaps, but surprised to find so many of my students were serving sentences for drug and alcohol-related offenses. Sometimes the charges were more serious than DUI or possession, of course. A lot involved theft (the grab the purse and run variety) and credit card fraud. All deserving of punishment, certainly. But incarceration and a permanent record? I’m not always sure. In many cases, it’s difficult not to think that treatment for substance abuse and/or a combination of restitution, community service and job/life skills training would serve these type of offenders and society better. And it would be a heckuva lot cheaper than the current $60 billion annually ($50,000 per inmate), that the U.S. spends housing prisoners. How is it that this great country of freedom, which has 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s prisoners?
That’s one reason I’m encouraged by Sen. Jim Webb’s criminal justice reform bill. Webb, who was keynote speaker when the Brookings Institute unveiled their report on prison reform that I blogged about here, is also concerned about the alarming proportion of mentally-ill, non-violent drug offenders and minorities currently in prison. His measure would put some really smart and experienced people in charge of figuring out what approach works best.
Webb says he wants to look at the total cost of incarceration, not only in terms of the billions we spend in building prisons and housing prisoners, but the in terms of the “lost opportunities with our post-prison systems.” A change in thinking here, could provide a much-needed boost to re-entry services such as employment training and education, substance abuse treatment and other assistance that would help someone who had done their time could better reclaim their place as a productive citizen in society. It will be interesting to see if budget pressures will have an impact in terms of making this bill and Butler’s ideas more palatable to those who would prefer to just lock everyone up.
In the meantime, you can listen to Butler here. You can also track Sen. Webb’s bill and help by sending your stories or ideas to his office at this link.