HERE WE GO AGAIN!
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Justice Is a Verb!
July 28, 2015
Yesterday Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced a plan to add 200 more prison beds to the already record number of people our state currently incarcerates. The projected cost of doing that will be $7.4 million “above and beyond” $33 million approved to increase the number of prison beds, invest in more parole officers, and reduce the prison population by shuffling some prisoners to locations out of state.
I confess to being unimpressed, again.
I mentioned when Governor Hutchinson unveiled what he termed a plan for “criminal justice reform” earlier this year that the plan was unsound. Governor Hutchinson’s approach, both with the announcement yesterday as with his plan earlier this year, follows the failed view that the nation (and Arkansas) will or should incarcerate ourselves into a healthier, safer, and more productive society. We haven’t done so to this point. Arkansas won’t do so by adding 200 more prison beds.
Instead of trying to find more places to warehouse people I have long argued that policymakers should ask hard questions about the people we intend to imprison and why we think they should be locked away. We should and must imprison people who kill, maim, rape, rob, and terrorize their neighbors. But we don’t have 20,000 murderers, rapists, assailants, armed robbers, and terrorists in Arkansas prisons
In fact, the leading cause for admission into the Arkansas Department of Correction (based on 2014 data) involved manufacture, delivery, or possession of controlled substances. That category of offenses occurred almost three times more than theft of property. Murder, rape, and armed robbery didn't even make it into the top ten causes for ADC admissions.
So the unpleasant truth Governor Hutchinson's approach doesn't address is that a substantial quantity of the prison population consists of people convicted of non-violent offenses associated with drug possession and dependency. Governor Hutchinson could commute the prison terms of those persons and free them from incarceration, thereby freeing bed space for people who kill, maim, kidnap, rape, and rob others.
However, commutation might cause people to start questioning all the money, time, and effort expended to capture, arrest, prosecute, convict, and imprison non-violent drug offenders as a colossal waste. Perhaps we would begin to recognize the “war on drugs” as little besides a cruel pretext for legally disenfranchising black, brown, and poor white people for engaging in non-violent unhealthy conduct.
$7.4 million dollars for prison beds won’t stop people from using drugs. It won’t treat drug dependency. It won’t provide jobs for people who’ve been incarcerated. It won’t prevent the children and other family members of the 200 people who will occupy those beds from being more likely to slide deeper into poverty, become more socially, nutritionally, and culturally vulnerable. It’s just another exercise in misguided policy-making under the guise of criminal justice reform. It's an excuse to build more warehouses for people who are chemically dependent and mentally ill, although not dangerous, while complaining we don't have space to put people who are truly dangerous (killers, armed robbers, rapists, and otherwise violent).
There is nothing reformative about repeating old mistakes no matter who champions doing so. Arkansas needs more people in school, not jail. We need more classrooms and teachers, not prison beds and guards. We need more treatment facilities for people to access who are chemically dependent and for people who suffer from mental illness. We need an approach to mass incarceration that doesn’t more incarceration, but involves education, job training and re-employment, affordable housing, and effective public interventions with people and families who are chemically dependent.
In other words, we must do something very different from what we’ve been doing if we hope to get different results. Governor Hutchinson hasn’t offered anything different, only more of the same incarceration mindset responsible for our present predicament.
Here we go again. We have decided to run backwards, again, and call doing so “progress.”