February 13, 2014 by gregrabidoux2013
Italy announced its plans to open its jail cells and release over 10,000 prisoners currently incarcerated on drug-related charges. This is a move widely seen as an attempt to reduce the soaring rate of jail overcrowding throughout its nation. Italian jails have the highest rate of crowding in all of the European Union.
The Roman Constitutional Court cited the controversial “Triple Sentencing” laws passed under former conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi as only making already overcrowded jails worse, to the point of “bursting.” These “Triple Sentencing” laws increased jail time and made minimum sentencing mandatory for convictions of selling, possessing and cultivating the cannabis drug.
Similar in aim to our own “Three Strikes” laws as it relates to drug convictions, the Italian move has reignited the debate here in the US as to how best to handle our own prison overcrowding problem.
Should we open the doors to our overcrowded jails and prisons and release thousands of prisoners now serving time on drug related charges?
Well, let’s take a look at a few facts about our system here first.
The US locks up the highest percentage of its citizens than in any other country. It costs over $65 billion a year just to house and feed the prisoners in our federal system alone. There are over 350,000 prisoners serving time on drug related charges in the federal system today. This number makes up about 52% of all prisoners incarcerated right now in the federal penal system. An increase in the number of laws incarcerating so-called corporate and White-Collar crime (fraud, money laundering, identity theft, computer crime, embezzlement) accounts for a part of this prison population increase at the federal level as well.
Not only is our prison population increasingly skewed toward drug related offenses, it continues to be disproportionately an issue of color.
While African-Americans make up only about 12% of the US Population (US Census Bureau 2010) they make up nearly 60% of all those incarcerated currently. 1 of every 15 Blacks are in jail, 1 of every 36 Latinos are in jail while 1 out of every 106 Whites are in jail. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics over 1 out of every 3 Black Men will serve time in prison at one point in their life. Black women are now 3X more likely to serve time than White females and 2x more than Hispanic females.
Certainly, there are a number of reasons for our overcrowding prison population. Truth in Sentencing laws, reducing diversionary or rehabilitative options for convicts, including drug offenders, elimination of reduced sentences for “good behavior” and an increase in minimum mandatory sentencing for a wide variety of charges, including drug crimes.
But here’s what we don’t spend enough time talking about when it comes to locking up our own citizens and throwing away the key.
The management of prisons and jails in the US is a highly profitable and booming business. As more federal, state and local officials are privatizing or contracting out the management of prisoners to private companies more and more security firms are wanting to and getting in on a slice of this cash cow.
Private prisons has in just two decades gone from a bit of an oddity to a full-fledged multi-billion dollar business. It creates jobs and with those jobs and money comes lobbying power.
Next time, take a look at the interest groups behind increased “tough on crime” laws and those behind any attempts to reform or reduce sentencing on drug related crimes and you’ll get a “Who’s Who” list of money interests of those conglomerates now running many of our jails and prisons.
So, I guess the real question in the US may not be should we open our prison doors and release our own prisoners serving time on drug charges, but it may be can we afford to?
Look, I’m not at all for releasing the drug lord or the gang polluting our streets with drugs but it sure seems that when we look at the numbers far too many of our youth, far too many of our youth of color, both boys and girls and men and women, are being locked up. And they are being locked up on charges in a system heavily skewed to incarcerate folks doing drugs. And increasingly, they are being put in overcrowded penal system even more ripe for gang violence.
And I’m not sure the answer is to keep the prison population flowing so that private companies can continue to make huge profits.
Crime does pay. Just not in the way we always thought.