Friday, June 3, 2016

Lock ‘em up and throw away the key …

I watched a few of the early Republican debates, and a few of the early Democratic debates, but lost interest after that. If you had the stamina to watch every single debate, you would have discovered the main topics for each set of debates, some of which actually matched.

On the Republican side, the 7 main issues were as follows:

1 - Donald Trump’s debate appearance

2- the candidate’s Christian faith

3 - the Iran prisoner exchange

4 - terrorism and the Islamic State

5 - the economic recovery

6- immigration

7 - supporting the eventual nominee

On the Democratic side, the main topics were as follows:

1 - the Iran prisoner exchange

2 - Sander’s general election viability

3 - Benghazi and the “13 hours” movie

4 - national security

5 - terrorism and the Islamic State

6 - gun control

7- climate change and energy

8 - Clinton’s ties to Wall Street

We’re all going to have differences of opinion about which topics are more important. In my opinion, someone‘s Christian faith is absolutely unimportant, but I AM concerned about gun control and climate change. You may well have different priorities than I do.

If you dug a little deeper, you’d find that there IS one other topic that was discussed in the debates, and that is criminal justice reform. Since the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, it’s a topic that SHOULD be explored further.

As of January 25, the Democratic candidates had mentioned criminal justice reform 28 times during the course of the 4 debates that had been held up to that time. In the six Republican debates that had been held up to that time, it wasn’t mentioned at all.

Why is prison reform so important?

The January 3, 2016 edition of the New York Times contained a column that was titled, “How to Help Former Inmates Thrive”:

The article is worth reading in its entirely, but the most compelling statement (by a former prison) is this:

“I don’t understand why over the 18 year period of my incarceration, over $900,000 was paid to keep me in prison, but when I was paroled, I was given $200 and told “good luck”.

I’ve managed to avoid incarceration my entire life, but an innocent prank by my then 18-year old son caused him to spend a night in jail, and to be charged (briefly) with committing a felony. The truth is that it’s actually easier to become a felon than you might think.

In 4 states (Arizona is one of them) possession of ANY marijuana at all is automatically a felony.. 10 states, and the District of Columbia, have removed felony possession of marijuana from their books, and a few other states have removed felony convictions for possessing only minor amounts. Surprisingly, even in states that have legalized recreational marijuana (like Oregon and Colorado) you can still be convicted of a felony if you possess over a certain amount of the stuff.

Believe it or not, the discussion of felonies actually affects all of us, since it leads to two related topics:

1 - should felons be allowed to vote ?

2 - should felons be allowed to own guns?

With respect to voting rights, it may surprise you to know that most states allow convicted felons to vote. In most states, felons can’t vote while they are serving their sentence, but Maine and Vermont actually allow felons to continue voting even when they are in prison. Virginia is one of a nandful the states that required governor’s action or a court order to restore voting rights, but on April 22, Governor Terry McAuliffe, signed a bill that restored voting rights to convicted felons.

Wayne LaPierre, whose headquarters is in Fairfax, Virginia, is one of the conservatives who was less than enthusiastic about Governor McAuliffe’s recent action, and there’s a reason for that.

Although “people of color” make up 30% of America’s population, they account for 60% of those imprisoned. Since people of minority races are far more likely to vote for Democrats (who generally are in favor of strong gun control laws) allowing more convicted felons to vote translates into fewer voters who support the NRA.

LaPierre, naturally, thinks that more convicted felons should be allowed to own guns. Although the 1938 Federal Firearms Act prohibited felons from owning guns, there ARE some exceptions to the rule,.

Any attempts by the administration to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them (like domestic violence abusers) is looked up with horror by the NRA.

The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban of 1996 bans access to firearms by people convicted of crimes of domestic violence. The key word here, though, is “convicted”. Only 16 states take away the guns of alleged domestic abusers after the imposition of a court imposed restraining order. Those temporary restraining orders, unfortunately, often become a death sentence for the women who sought protection.

There is no question that there are some very nasty people in our nation’s prisoners (two of whom are pictured below) , but it’s also true that there are an awful lot of our current prison population that should not be there at all. Currently, there are four states Oklahoma, Mississippi, Delaware, and Louisiana that have a higher incarceration rate than any nation on earth.

Naturally, it costs a LOT of money to keep all those people in prison, so it simply makes sense that reducing the prison population would save states a LOT of money, which could be used for far more productive uees. In 2014, voters in California passed Proposition 47, which re categorized some non violent offenses as misdemeanors rather than as felonies. As a result of the proposition, the state was able to reduce its prison population by 13,000 people, which saved the state $150 million in incarceration costs.

Unfortunately, not enough states are smart enough to follow California’s example. If you added up what all 50 states on incarceration each year, you’d come up with somewhere between $43 billion and $74 billion.

That’s just dumb.

The private prison industry, naturally, has a vested interest in keeping as many people locked up as possible. One of those companies, the Corrections Corporation of America, made a profit of $1.7 billion in 2010, Another private prison company, the Geo Group, made a profit of $1.2 billion the same year. In order to protect their cash cow, the private prison companies spent a LOT of money on lobbying expenses. In 2010, CCA spent $18 million buying the votes of friendly legislatures.

Most people are smart enough to realize that investing money in education is the best way to grow a state’s economy. Sadly, most Republicans aren’t that smart.

Last spring, the Arizona legislature cut $104 million from the budgets of the state’s universities.. In that same “austere budget”, the legislature somehow found enough money to INCREASE spending on corrections by $20,000,000.

Arizona is far from alone in its misplaced priorities, since there are 11 states that spend more money on prisons that on higher education. Arizona is one of those 11 states.

The existence of a prison system that is too lenient doesn’t adequately protect society as a whole, but it’s also true that the “tough on crime” approach advocated by some folks doesn’t work either.

The “toughest sheriff in America (Joe Arpaio) is famous for making prisoners wear pink underwear and sleep in tents during Arizona’s summers. However, from 2002 to 2009, violent crime in Arizona decreased in all police jurisdictions except one, Maricopa County, where violent crime INCREASED by 58%.

Over the years, Sheriff Joe has cost Arizona taxpayers over $150 million in defending him against lawsuits. Although he has stated publicly that he plans to run for a sixth term in November, the fact that he was recently found in contempt of Federal Court may dampen his plans.

If you STILL think that it’s smart to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key“, I have some advice for you.

Take a deep breath, count to 10, and read the article again. If that doesn’t work, try this.

Take a deep breath, count to 10, and read the article again.

Eventually, I think that you’ll catch on.

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