Getting to the bottom of prison reform

By Michelle Chen Apr 03, 2009

Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) has a crazy idea: reform the system that has locked up more than two million people, devastated communities, and undermined public safety. His bill, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, is far from a comprehensive restructuring effort, but it does offer a meaningful start. It would create a commission to investigate how to:

• Re-focus incarceration policies to reduce the overall incarceration rate while preserving public safety, cost-effectiveness, and societal fairness • Decrease prison violence • Improve prison administration, including competence & career enhancement of administrators • Establish meaningful re-entry programs for ex-offenders • Reform our nation’s drug policies • Improve treatment of the mentally ill • Improve responses to international & domestic criminal activity by gangs & cartels • Reform any other aspect of the system the Commission determines necessary

Though the text of the bill briefly mentions racial disparities, racial impacts are not explicitly highlighted in the commission’s core agenda. But in light of new statistics on prison demographics, a meaningful investigation of the country’s incarceration addiction can’t avoid the question of race. The new Bureau of Justice Statistics report on prison inmates at midyear 2008 reveals not only the usual Black-white disproportionality, but also:

• An expansion in the Latino prison population, including a sharp rise in the number of incarcerated non-citizens (Pew Hispanic Center recently analyzed the growing Latino federal prison population.) • A marked growth in the female portion of the incarcerated population since 2000. • A nearly 60 percent increase from 2007 to 2008 in the reported number of youth under 18 held in state prisons. • Wide variance in imprisonment trends among different states since 2000, from a growth of about 60 percent in Minnesota to a 12 percent decline in New York.

Do the changes reflect trends in who commits crime, or simply how, and against whom, the law is being enforced? The racial lopsidedness of New York’s mandatory drug sentencing laws—and their apparent breathtaking failure to impact drug use or violent crime—elucidates just how far the prison system has drifted from the goal of public safety. And while Webb tries to pull Congress onto a political “third rail,” John Terzano of the Justice Project points to another live wire at the front end of criminal justice: the deficiencies plaguing criminal investigation and court processes.

We cannot be confident in the investigations and convictions that send so many people to prison in the first place…. Research on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, false confessions, weakness in the practice and use of forensic science, and the widespread and pervasive nature of prosecutorial misconduct or inadequate defense representation, all indicate that we do not have a fair and accurate criminal trial process.

And to push even further down the path of prevention, Congress ought to take a hard look at the the Cradle-to-prison Pipeline. The Children’s Defense Fund’s campaign argues that the epidemic of mass incarceration begins in embattled communities, where children grow up under the crush of poverty, violence, and institutional racism. Webb’s blue-ribbon commission’s stated mission is “undertaking an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of our entire criminal justice system.” Perhaps the greatest challenge will be finding where exactly the bottom lies.