Saturday, March 28, 2009

While I'm at it. . .

Since I solved the problem with Afghanistan yesterday, I figured I'd focus my attention to a domestic issue today. I don't by any stretch think it's the most pressing domestic issue, not by a long shot--but it's one that crossed my eyes this morning, and therefore it has me all irked and needing to get unbottled.

Reference piece: Sen. Webb wrote "Why we must fix our Prisons", appearing in this weekend's Parade news journal.

And I agree with him--we must fix our prisons. And it's not even the numbers that he quotes in the article that lead me to that conclusion.

I would love to know how the Senator thinks we should fix these problems, but he never does quite get around to it in this article. He identifies things in our penal system that he dislikes--but is mighty short on solutions. Of course, there is the ol' political fallback: he's going to introduce legislation that will create a commission to look at these problems. This, from one of our country's top 102 elected officials. That's some solution there, Senator--no wonder this country is so screwed up!

Some highlights of the article, with added editorializing when I feel like it:

-- He writes about how the country's rates of incarceration are so much higher than the worldwide average. So what? Are you saying that the other country's prison systems are better than ours? That there is some result achieved "out there" that is a more desirable ending than what we Americans are currently getting from our penal system? A number is just a number--provide some context, please.

-- He writes about how our prisons "are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear." No, sir, we don't "purport" to fear them--we actually DO fear them. Honest, hard-working, law-abiding citizens fear, loathe, and wish to vanquish those behaviors. That's why people who perpetrate actions steeped in violence, physical abuse and hate end up in prison (when the system works properly).
I hate to put it this way, but it is true: it's better that such behavior is kept behind bars than be let out into society.

-- He spends one-sixth of his column lamenting the fact that so many drug offenders are in prison--but then later writes about how there is some serious nastiness being brought into this country by the drug cartels for the drug trade. I think the point of his wistful number-dropping regarding drug convicts in prison was to point to the need for legalizing (or at least defelonizing) drug offenses--again, he doesn't actually say it, but that's what I get from it--but he totally loses me when he writes not two paragraphs later about the brutal tactics employed by drug suppliers. Why would this country want to invite trouble inside our borders? Isn't it logical to think that taking the felonious nature away from drug offenses would increase the presence and maybe influence of these cartel-paid mercenaries? I certainly can't abide a counterargument: that making drug offenses a non-starter for prison time would decrease the cartels presence in this country. If the demand increases--which is a likely result of taking prison sentences off the table for drug offenses--so will the supply. And so will the presence of the supplier's agents. Isn't that logical? And isn't that the exact situation we want to avoid?

-- Here's the biggest "what?" moment from Webb's writings: "With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive."

Now, credit where credit is due: he does NOT think that this country is home to the most evil people on earth. Good for him!

And I'll even allow that "we" are doing something different--but that doesn't make it wrong, or even necessarily counterproductive. Expensive? Yes. In need of improvement? Absolutely! But wrong?

I can't get there from here.

'Cuz here's what I know: I know that when an ex-convict is out of prison in any form and he or she does something that takes a serious toll on the lives of innocents, then I feel that the system has really REALLY failed the people it's supposed to protect.

Think Oakland. And then pray that the same pain going through that community right now is never revisited anywhere near you.

And if it takes "doing something different" than the rest of the world to keep that from happening again, then I'm okay with it.

-- Webb's final paragraph starts "In short, we are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life. . .". What this has to do with prisons I don't know. Is he saying that we should never parole anyone because of all the lessons in hate, violence and abuse that they learned while incarcerated? I don't think so. And yes, I'm not in the law enforcement world, but if I'm not mistaken there's "law enforcement" officers and then there's "correctional custody" officers (or some variant thereof). Now if we were taking people in uniform off the streets to tend to prisoners, then I'd agree he has a point here. But I don't think that's what is happening around the country--that sentence starter appears to me to be a strawman.

Again, being served so well by the people we put into office.

Now there is something worthwhile in the article: at the end, he talks about the "tasks" the commission he wants to create will need to finish, including finding "clear" answers to hard questions. (Obviously, he's a first-term Senator--a commission with "clear" answers is normally a commission that is uniformly wrong). Now I'm not on the commission, but here are my answers to some of the questions he thinks need to be answered:

-- Why are so many Americans currently in prison compared to other countries and our own history? Because we're a country of laws, and a country that enforces those laws, and EVERY SINGLE PERSON behind bars is a lawbreaker. (I hope that's true--I know it's not, but I'd love for somebody to be able to say it and be telling the truth) I don't care about comparing our justice system with anything and anyone else, I just want to ask one thing: is our system keeping felonious lawbreakers away from those of us who live within the law? If the answer is yes, then that is all I need to hear.

-- What is this policy costing our nation in terms of:
- tax dollars. A lot, I know that, and we need to find a way to save. But if money is such an issue, that's what the budgeting process is for.
- lost opportunities? Hey, under most circumstances, these guys and gals already had an opportunity, and they blew it. Is it really up to the Federal Government to keep providing more opportunities to people who don't realize the value of their first shot? When do we stop doing that?

-- How can we reshape our nation's drug policies? I don't think that's up to you, Senator. Drug policies should be written and enforced at the local level (unless the incident goes interstate, in which case the Feds should be called in). And no matter what the result of the jurisdiction question is, the one thing we as a society should not encourage is drug use. If laws that threaten incarceration are a good deterrent to that, then I'm all for 'em!

-- How can we better diagnose and treat mental illness? Maybe I'm an idealist here, but shouldn't that be a part of the convicts' legal defense work-up? I would think that this area is already covered in spades before imprisonment.

-- How can we end violence within prisons? I've got a radical idea: how about every cellmate goes into isolation? They've already proven they can't function in society--why are we giving them another society in which to live? If you want to stop the violence, abuse and hate from warping their minds any more, then how about--for the sake of the prisoners, for crying out loud!--we just leave them be? I mean REALLY leave them be.

-- How can we build workable re-entry programs so that our communities can assimilate former offenders? How about taking advantage of all that non-socializing time they now have and try to TEACH THEM A TRADE? In fact, make their release into the real world dependent on the level to which they learn something productive? Gone would be the days of serving time and then hitting the bricks. If you haven't learned anything worthwhile during incarceration, then you're still the same guy or gal who got in trouble in the first place (with the added detractor of being more desperate). If you have to actually ACCOMPLISH something as a precursor to release, then by gum, you're probably going to learn something. This would open opportunities for real job placement based on the skills someone has learned. And if you want to talk about getting rid of the "stigma" of being an ex-con, then ex-cons need to branch out into jobs other than off-the-street jobs--teach them something valuable, and they will be valued.

-- How can we defend ourselves agains tthe growing scourge of violent, internationally based gang activity? Well, this is a multi-faceted question, but within the realm of prison reform, how about this: don't give these gangs an opportunity to network! Currently, any open population prison is a prime place for criminal enterprises to build contacts and infrastructure for use beyond the prison walls. Cutting out open population assignments for gang-bangers or violent convicts would help end this consorting. Prison should be about improving society one person at a time, not improving the strength and reach of unlawful activities. Don't let 'em talk to each other--and make them learn something productive.

In short, make prison a place that forces a convict to turn their back on their prior life--the one that got them into trouble in the first place--while opening doors to another life. It's still up to the convict to show that he wants to walk through those doors, but prison CAN provide him or her the means to succeed if the individual so desires.

Self-determination is the answer. What a concept!

Now tell me: did I just save the taxpayers money by voiding the need for a commission?


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