Paul R. Lehman, Changing the criminal justice system and mass incarceration starts at the local level

July 10, 2018 at 4:13 am | Posted in African American, criminal justice, justice, justice system, law, lower class, Michelle Alexander, minority, non-violent crimes, Oklahoma, poverty, race, Race in America, social conditioning, social justice system, The Oklahoman | Leave a comment
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Often times, when something happens involving the criminal justice system that has a negative effect on a segment of society, that part of society that is not seemingly directly impacted will pay little or no attention to the problem Usually, they remain uninvolved and uninformed relative to the criminal justice until it affects them directly. What they do not realize is that they have always been directly affected by the system whether they know it or not. One way they, the public, is affected is through the high rate of incarceration and prison overcrowding that the citizens are financially responsible for paying. However, since they do not receive the bill directly, they give little attention to it. The groups that are forced to pay the bills are the poor and people of color. So, for many years mass incarceration has been about controlling people of color and the poor right in plain sight while nothing was done to correct the injustices that were committed against them.

Studies have been conducted relative to mass incarceration ascertaining that the phenomena are not simply an act of maintaining law and order, but a system of economic profit-making. A number of scholars have referred to the criminal justice system as the prison industrial complex because of the vastness of the system and the many people involved at many different levels. Although this system is a nationwide organization, what keeps it going happens at the local levels of society. So, if an effort is made to replace the unjust system, the initial action must take place at the local level. The first order of business is to re-educate the public and present a transparent picture of what happens to a citizen that is incarcerated at the local level and how he or she becomes part of the bodies working for the system.

Many citizens are led to believe that because a person is arrested, charged, and sent to prison that they deserve to be there because they broke the law. Generally speaking, that would be an accurate assessment. However, what created the present situation of mass incarceration had nothing to do with citizens breaking the law, but with the laws being changed to expand the number of people being incarcerated. When President Reagan instituted his war on drugs and crime, he caused a modification of the charges and length of sentencing. The system has since added the fees, fines, and numerous charges to the sentence of the incarcerated person, making freedom almost impossibility if one happens to be poor or a person of color. So, the more people introduced into the system, the more efficiently it runs. For an in-depth look at the subject of mass incarceration please read Michelle Alexander’s book THE NEW JIM CROW.

The state of Oklahoma is one of the national leaders regarding mass incarceration in general, but number one as far as incarcerating women is concerned. This problem was brought to the attention of the Oklahoma citizens in the form of two state questions that addressed the rate of incarceration of people with drug problems and non-violent crimes. The state actually passed the two questions 780 and 781 that sought to reclassify drug possession and some other lower-level crimes as misdemeanors. The objective of the questions was to use the money saved from not incarcerating people of these types of crimes and use that money for alternative programs. These types of programs are necessary for addressing the problems and redirecting the money.

Kris Steele, a former Speaker of the House, is the chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and leader in attempting to stop the mass march to prison of many citizens. Based on his studies and experiences relative to criminology he understands that prison is not the answer to problems involving drug use and low-level offenses. He expressed some of his concerns in an article, “Justice reform must have buy-in,” (7/9/2018) that underscored the injustice of the sentencing today. He also noted the importance of the people involved in the working of the criminal justice system understanding the problems and helping to overcome many of these problems, not trying to maintain the status quo. Steele noted the need for elected officials and others to accept the programs. He stated that “Unfortunately, some elected officials still haven’t accepted this approach. In the six months after the state questions were enacted, 882 people were sent to prison with drug possession as their most serious offense—directly rebutting the will of voters.”

One of the problems in this matter is the lack of concern of many of the citizens; they either do not care or do not know the seriousness of mass incarceration. Steele noted that citizens pay the price and it is significant: “If each of these 882 people sentenced to prison for drug possession spent one year in prison, it would cost the taxpayer $15 million, and if they were imprisoned for the statewide average for drug possession—25 months—it would cost $32 million.

We know that mass incarceration is a feature of the criminal justice that keeps the system going; we also know that the system is unjust and unfair to people of color and the poor. We realize that we can start to resolve the problem if we work together. Steele noted that “Once this cultural change is embraced by those responsible for implementing reform, Oklahoma can safely reduce its incarceration rate, boost public safety and strengthen families.”  Oklahomans must keep the pressure for corrective action open and out front for change to occur.

Along with addressing the problem of mass incarceration is the need for prison reform from a national perspective. Michael Gerson in an article “An idea that should succeed in Washington,” (7/9/2018) citing the need for prison and sentencing reform referenced two scholars, Steven Teles and David Dagan who identified reform as “an example of ‘trans-partisanship,” and “a agreement on policy goals driven by divergent, deeply held ideological beliefs.” Everything depends on how people view crimes and criminals. They stated that “Liberals look at mass incarceration as see structural racism. Libertarians see the denial of civil liberties, Fiscal conservatives see wasted resources. Religious activists see inhumane conditions and damaged lives.”

Gerson summed up the solution for mass incarceration, prison, and sentencing reform by making one simple statement—“ All these convictions converge at one point: We should treat offenders as humans, with different stories and different needs, instead of casting them all into the same pit of despair.” Easy to say, harder to accomplish.

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