GOVERNOR HUTHCHINSON’S ANNOUNCEMENT ISN’T ENOUGH
Justice is a Verb!
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Arkansans should not read more into Governor Hutchinson's recent announcement that a new prison isn't the answer to prison overcrowding and mass incarceration in Arkansas than his acknowledgment that Arkansas cannot afford to build a new 1000 inmate prison (at a projected construction of cost of about $100 million). As Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holiday states, even if funding was available and new construction could begin soon, the new lockup facility would not be ready to receive prisoners for years.
Governor Hutchinson's announcement that a new prison isn't the answer does not, however, address the basic problem. Arkansas, like the rest of the nation, has a prison over-crowding problem because the ill-conceived and intellectually dishonest "war on drugs" resulted in the arrest, prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment of thousands of people for non-violent conduct. Many of the "repeat offenders" mentioned by the prosecutor quoted in the KATV-TV news report about Governor Hutchinson’s announcement are non-violent offenders imprisoned for non-violent misdeeds while on probation or parole that are related in one way or another to substance dependency.
Substance dependency is, at bottom, a public health and wellness matter. People who are dependent on drugs (whether illegal substances or legal substances that are used improperly or without valid medical authorization) are impaired, not vicious. Governor Hutchinson should know this, admit it publicly, and should lead state officials to abandon the failed mindset of criminalizing drug dependency, focus attention on addressing drug dependency through the public health system.
Governor Hutchinson should also exercise his executive power to grant clemency to non-violent offenders who have been convicted on drug possession and related charges. Doing so will relieve the tremendous pressure on county and local jails where state prisoners are now being confined. Those jails and state prisons will then be able to confine people who commit violent offenses.
Sending Arkansas inmates to prisons in other states (such as Louisiana) and expanding county and local jails will not solve prison overcrowding. Doing those things will not address the cost issue because Arkansas will need to hold and house inmates somewhere, and must pay someone to hold and house them.
Using privately-owned or run prisons poses additional problems. The notion of treating humans as commodities (products to be shipped and stored for profit) is morally repulsive. Private prisons also have been exposed for mistreating prisoners, denying them lawfully required health and other services, and for abusing prison inmates.
The problem of mass incarceration and prison over-crowding (in Arkansas and the United States) is not going away on its own. Governor Hutchinson should exercise the responsibility of his office and courageously lead Arkansas and the nation in addressing to address mass incarceration in "a more excellent way" that respects the humanity of people whose lives and families have been snared because politicians dating back to former President Richard Nixon cleverly decided to declare "war on drugs" in order to prosecute and disenfranchise people of color and poor white people, the demographic groups that gained electoral importance after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other civil rights legislation.
There is plenty of space for non-violent offenders in their homes, with their families, and in our communities if we simply exercise the moral courage and wisdom to treat them as our impaired neighbors rather than as predators. Governor Hutchinson should call other civic leaders, faith leaders, and everyone else to summon that courage and act with that wisdom. If he doesn’t, we will continue acting out the unjust and foolhardy mindset of the "war on drugs" that has been a curse on our society and a burden for countless persons and families for the past several decades.