Many states are trying to reduce the number of people in prison, some are having success. Surprisingly, it is one area that has bipartisan support, including in Congress. All of this is happening in the face of a huge and deadly drug addiction epidemic.
As one who has spent 50 years working in the field of corrections, I have seen many changes in crime and punishment — some for the better some for the worse. What probably was the worst has been the politicization of crime and punishment.
Nixon’s War on Drugs in 1971, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, 1980 and Clinton’s Violent Crime Bill in 1994 — all had good intentions, but contributed to a heightened level of rhetoric about crime and safety.
Elected leaders responded with longer sentences, mandatory minimums, abolished parole and the list goes on. The result: unprecedented growth in prison populations. The growth is not just the result of the drug crisis, but of mandatory sentences, which are death sentences for many.
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The number of offenders, male and female, over 55 is growing, resulting in a situation where not only is the state Department of Corrections the largest mental-health provider in a jurisdiction, but also a major nursing-home provider, neither of which they are prepared to administer in a cost-effective and humane manner.
Recently, I noticed two articles in the Herald-Leader. The first was about an 18-year-old high-school student, described by his teachers as a good student and considered the class clown. He had been convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for saying he was going to “shoot up the school.” The prosecutor’s response was that, in this environment, he had to send a message to deter future school shootings.
The second article was about an Amish man in his 50s who had been sentenced to six years in prison for not putting the correct wording on the labels of his natural skin lotion. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals denied his appeal.
An immature class clown and a member of a religious sect are taking up expensive prison cells that should be for people we are afraid of, not angry with. What the young man did was wrong and dangerous. It required action by the police and possibly the prosecutor. But surely, our society can use our collective common sense to take a deep breath and come up with another sanction that would send a message that this behavior would not be tolerated, without ruining a young man’s future.
Yes, we need the Food and Drug Administration. It protects our society by regulating wording on product labels. But lacking the required verbiage on a label for a natural salve simply doesn’t equate with six years in federal prison. Sorry. it just doesn’t.
If we are going to address mass incarceration, and I strongly believe we must, then we must let our legislators and criminal justice professionals know that we want our criminal-justice system and future legislative changes accomplished in a bipartisan manner with a great deal of common sense and compassion.
We need to help those who need help and lock up those who pose a threat to all of us.
John D. Rees is the retired commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.