This article expresses the opinion of Michael Semanchik, a staff attorney at the California Innocence Project. It is solely his opinion.
Most of us at CIP spend a lot of time in prison visiting clients, witnesses, and potential clients claiming innocence. Over the last 3 years, I have been lucky enough to travel to 27/33 prisons in California, two prisons in Oklahoma, two in Texas, and 1 federal facility in Lompoc, CA. I have also had the pleasure of touring R.J. Donovan State Prison a half dozen times. Even after all that, I am still thoroughly fascinated by the U.S. prison system.
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. That’s right. In the world. There’s many factors at play, but one must ask: “Are Americans the least law-abiding people in the world?” The root of the problem certainly starts with our insane sentencing laws. California, for instance, had no problem sentencing a person to 25-to-life for stealing a $100 leaf blower back in 1995. Thankfully, we’ve amended the 3 Strikes law to save money and let these non-violent offenders return to society (see here).
Recently, ex-NYC Police Chief Bernard Kerik sat down with Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show to talk about how the prison system is broken. Kerik is in an interesting position – having been a person to put a ton of people behind bars, then actually serving time himself. At the end of the day, everyone agrees – prisons are there for punishment. But Kerik raises a good point: a conviction and prison sentence should not ruin life once you’ve been released. If we truly want to reduce recidivism, save money, and make productive members of society out of inmates, we should be providing adequate (and relevant) job training, actual jobs upon release, and reentry programs to help inmates stay out. It cost nearly $50k to house a single person in prison per year in California. Is it even possible the societal cost of job training and placement is more?
Interestingly, California’s prison system was known as the California Department of Corrections until 2004. That year, the department added an “R” to the end – Rehabilitation. Why did CDC decide to add the R? Its not as if the state’s recidivism rate sharply declined (Nov. 2011 report put the rate at 65.1%). Its not as if we suddenly had less crime due to the prison’s rehabilitation efforts. Its definitely not true that inmates were getting educated on the inside and becoming rehabilitated, productive members of society. How do we know? Because the prison population skyrocketed until a 3-judge panel had to force the state to cut back.
What’s worse? Innocent inmates exonerated of crimes they did not commit get no services. Exonerees get kicked out of prison upon their conviction getting overturned. They do not receive $200 to take the bus back to the county of conviction. They do not report to a parole officer to assist with job placement, transitional housing, etc. They are an accident of the system and one we quietly try to sweep under the rug.
Enough ranting – check out this cool infographic on the U.S. Prison System put together by the Boston University Masters in Criminal Justice program: