02-19-2017  3:21 pm      •     

If there was any doubt about the broken state of our prison system, the news this week should put it to rest.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, made up of former presidents and other luminaries from the United States and abroad, concludes that the Drug War is an expensive failure. The California prison system—which the U.S. Supreme Court declared to be in violation of the 8th Amendment due to overcrowding and neglect—has yet to develop a plan to bring it into compliance with the court order.

Less well publicized, but also disturbing, is a letter from Tom Lutz in which he resigns from his post as department chair at the University of California Riverside. Lutz warns that the state is dismantling in just a few years a world-class system of higher education. Funding has shifted dramatically from educating California's young to imprisoning them—not a way to build a strong country.

Meanwhile, massive state budget deficits are worsened by the expense of locking up more of our own citizens than any other country in the world.

Perhaps we're finally ready for a reassessment. What might a more effective and rational system look like?

As we researched the summer issue of YES!, "Beyond Prisons," we found a blossoming of creative alternatives to the punitive drug war and to the criminal justice system's expensive punishment ethic.

People behind bars for drug possession make up the greatest share of the massive uptick in the prison population. The experts we talked to, including a former police chief and a medical doctor who specializes in addiction, called for an end to the war on drugs. Instead of punishing drug addicts—many of whom are victims of trauma—treatment, needle exchanges, and safe housing lessen addiction, disease, and the crimes caused by drug use.

Most of the 2.3 million now in prison will eventually be released. Education and job training are proven ways to reduce the number who reoffend and return to prison. Ex-offenders and ex-addicts can be the best mentors of those released from prison; the Delancey Street Project, for example, offers peer support and job-skills training in businesses run by ex-inmates and addicts, and their success record is impressive.

Traditional approaches to crime hold special promise. In New Zealand, instead of locking up young offenders, a council made up of family, community members, and crime victims holds them accountable for their crimes, and then gives them an opportunity to make restitution and be reintegrated into the community. This approach, which borrows from the Maori people, has become the norm in New Zealand, reducing to almost zero the number of young people locked up in expensive and violent detention facilities.

This "restorative justice" approach is spreading. Studies show crime victims who are involved in victim-offender mediation processes are less likely to experience long-term post-traumatic stress.

The involvement of the broader community is key to the success of restorative approaches. A welding instructor who volunteers to instruct inmates, a Girl Scout leader who brings girls to visit their imprisoned mothers, or a garden club that helps inmates start prison gardens all do their part to create vital links to the outside.

There are people we might agree should be locked up: psychopathic killers, rapists, and others who endanger their families or communities.

But most of those in prison are people with few resources who have committed nonviolent offenses—especially poor people, people of color, drug users, alcoholics, and the mentally challenged. Imprisoning millions of these people does not make us safer. But imprisoning 2.3 million people does deplete government coffers resulting in massive cuts in programs—like California's system of higher education—that have proven track records for reducing crime.

A smarter and more compassionate criminal justice system could not only save lives and restore communities especially hard hit by imprisonments, it could save us from fiscal meltdown.

 

van Gelder is executive editor of YES! Magazine and yesmagazine.org. The Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine is "Beyond Prisons."

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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