Opinion: Hard look at prison system, alternatives imperative

In a recent opinion article for CNN, Lisa Bloom, a legal analyst and author, refers to what she calls the “false dichotomy” of the United States being forced to choose only between cutting social programs or raising taxes to make our economy better.

She readily points to a third choice, which she sees as obvious and which she says could save the country scores of billions of dollars each year.

“Stop warehousing our own people,” she says.

Sentencing reform and, especially, sentence reduction, is desperately needed throughout the federal and states’ systems, Bloom asserts, and she easily cites to a number of diverse facts and statistics to support her view. They centrally include these following points:

  • The Unites States imprisons more people than any other country on earth, including China
  • Since 1989, California has built only one new public college, while constructing about one new prison each year over that time
  • The number of imprisoned Americans has quadrupled since 1980, with more than two million people now being incarcerated
  • Nonviolent offenders (e.g., those convicted of drug possession for small amounts of illegal drugs) comprise 60 percent of the nation’s prison population
  • Returning to a 1970s level of incarceration would require reducing the nation’s prison population by 80 percent
  • On average, today’s prisoner spends 36 percent more time in custody than did offenders in 1990, with the country spending close to $70 billion annually on its correctional institutions

Bloom touches on what numerous other commentators and studies have noted, namely, that the American public strongly favors reducing prison time or providing for alternative outcomes (e.g., probation, community service, treatment programs) for nonviolent offenders.

As evidenced by the ever-growing number of prisons and inmates, the nation certainly does have money to spend, Bloom says. What it needs to do is a better job in rationally identifying and adjusting its priorities.

Source: CNN, “When will the U.S. stop mass incarceration?” Lisa Bloom, July 3, 2012