U.S. imprisons too many people

I am responding to a recent editorial in the Enterprise along with an opinion piece about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) recent comments about the American penal system. Although her remarks appear controversial to many, they have unfortunately detracted from a major and very real issue with the U.S. justice and penal system.

We now have the largest prison system in the world, with more people behind bars and in detention centers than any other country. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30 or 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.

The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and state psychiatric hospitals. The number of people in our jails far outstrips that of Canada or any European country, and is more than totalitarian countries such as Russia and China, both in total numbers and per capita percentage of population. Every year, 626,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because so many people currently in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial. Pre-trail detention is responsible for all the net increases in incarceration over the last 20 years. Only a small number, 150,000 on any given day, have been convicted, generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year.

None of this is a sign of a healthy society. Everyone should be more informed and concerned about the trends as we appear to live in a society that is intent on putting people behind bars with an emphasis on punitive actions rather than rehabilitation. And as with many other policies, the negatives about the current penal system fall most heavily upon the poor and under-employed, with greater negative consequences to African-Americans and Latinos as well as other minority groups. The front-to-back injustice referenced by Sen. Warren starts with the fact that most urban neighborhoods are still segregated by race. There is also a higher police presence in minority neighborhoods. Once arrested, individuals have fewer resources to post bail or to defend themselves, often staying jail while waiting trial and, once convicted, often are sentenced to longer prison terms.

I have been looking at these numbers in silent amazement ever since they were raised in political campaigns over the last 10 years and have been absolutely amazed that the current administration in Washington prefers to make the justice system even more punitive through increasing prison terms for nonviolent crimes and by imprisoning people seeking asylum at our southern border. There are many policy initiatives needed at both the state and federal level to increase equitable treatment within our justice system, including returning to community-oriented policing in urban areas, building bridges between communities and police officers, increasing the number of minorities on police forces, promoting racial equity in prosecution decisions by evaluating and changing how recommended prison terms may be influenced by race, promoting drug treatment and rehab rather than prison sentences, providing affordable bail amounts for nonviolent crimes based on ability to pay, reimagining our prison system to ensure meaningful and productive time spent while reducing recidivism rates, and ensuring access to housing and education after incarceration. There are many organizations working for these reforms.

If we are going to improve as a society, we have a long way to go to improve how our justice system operates. The more everyone knows about the problems faced by enforcement and prison officials, the more emphasis will be placed on real solutions rather than spending unending amounts of tax resources on building more and more prisons. I would recommend online resources such as the Vera Institute of Justice (www.vera.org), Center for Prison Reform (centerforprisonreform.org) and the Correctional Association of New York (www.correctionalassociation.org), among many others.

There will always be a need for prisons, but we also need to understand and fix a problem that ends up with more people behind prison walls than any other country in the world with a much larger percentage of minorities in the system than is reflected by the population or victims of crime. Many, in fact, are incarcerated because of nonviolent crimes in which the person incarcerated is the one and only victim other than their families who are also negatively impacted by the system.

James E. Connolly lives in Lake Clear.