Last week a number of distinguished organizations released a new report meant to urge Congress and the President into making substantive changes to the way this country deals with crime. In my last post, I pointed out the strengths of the report. In this post, I want to discuss a few items that were absent.
Let’s start with my main beef: the federal criminal justice system. What is the biggest problem with how our federal government deals with crime? The answer: the feds lock up too many damn people. And why do they lock up too many people? Because there are too many federal crimes; there is something like 4,000-plus federal crimes that the Department of Justice has at its disposal. The problem is systemic (and expensive but I save the cost until the end). It starts with Congress, who thinks it politically expedient to pass a new criminal law every time some horrific crime occurs, and it ends with federal prosecutors, who decide what sentence a person receives based on how they arrange the charges.
The report addresses this problem. They label it federal “overcriminalization.” According to the Smart on Crime report, the solution to the problem of overcriminalization is to have Congress amend their rules to now require that every potential new federal crime be subject to a mandatory reporting legislation, resulting in a public report assessing the “purported justification, costs, and benefits of all new or modified criminalization.” Now I don’t want to demean the Smart on Crime report, because its goal is worthy, its contributors are all people I respect, and it does offer many great solutions. That being said, are you freaking kidding me? There is a fallacy in this country that federal commissions and reports actually accomplish something—they don’t.
What needs to happen is for the federal government to reduce the amount of federal criminal statutes by one-third. Statutes such as the federal carjacking and felon in possession of firearm laws would be a great place to start. I am hoping that someday, someone will give me a logical explanation for how a carjacking affects interstate commerce, or why it is a federal concern. Another area that needs revamping is the federal narcotics statutes. In prison I witnessed the havoc that drugs and addiction plays on individuals and families. But I also witnessed black men in the early 20’s sentenced to 20 and 30 years for a handful of crack. I don’t know if “absurd” is the right word, but it’s the first that comes to mind. If the federal government wants to play drug lord, then they should work to stop drugs from coming into the country. Once drugs are here, they should leave it to the states; they at least have monetary controls to keep them from incarcerating close to an entire generation of minority men.
The only way to reduce the federal prison population is to discontinue the practice of allowing our federal government to be the dominant police power. With respect to the other submitted proposals, anything else is just window dressing.
My other beef is that certain items are addressed, but not explained with enough specificity for them to have any real usefulness. Take, for example, this recommendation for prisons:
Recommendation: Reduce recidivism and increase effective rehabilitation. Congress and the Administration should pursue policies that better prepare prisoners for reentry following the completion of their sentences at the federal and state level. These include a variety of policies, a few of which include drug treatment programs, alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, access to educational programs and job training, and coordination between prison programs and communities.
These are excellent suggestions, but ones that have been offered before. The federal government has been in the business of mass incarceration now for a quarter of a century and they are no better at preventing recidivism. What is needed is specific policies; otherwise Congress will pass a law allotting money for new programs and then they will let the Bureau of Prisons decide those programs (trust me, this is exactly what has occurred in the past, just ask any prisoner about the famed Second Chance Act).
So what would be the best programs to reduce recidivism? Well, as noted above, first we need to reduce the prison population, both federal and state. Then we need good time credits that are tied to participation in educational and self-help programs sponsored by the prison. Those programs should be designed by people familiar with the current job market. In other words, they should not be designated by career government employees who have little experience with the real world. In the prison I resided, they had a business management associate’s degree program, which they expanded. They also had a welding program, which they terminated. Do you think businesses will readily hire people coming out of prison to run their business? No, but they will hire a good welder regardless of his or her arrest record. We should also involve as many faith-based programs as possible. No matter your religious or non-religious beliefs, it has been proven that those programs have lasting impact long after a prisoner is released.
Well, this post has become entirely too long. I do not want people to think I am bagging on the new report, because, for the most part, I think it is terrific. But if we are serious about making changes, I believe we need to begin implementing some of the policies I mentioned. Last year, we spent over 76 billion on corrections. Just think of the other problems we could fix with all that money.