Posts Tagged prison population

#Cut50 Aims to Halve Prison Population in 10 Years

Published by — Is record-breaking mass incarceration, mainly of men of color, really okay with most Americans?

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. Photo:

Photo: — Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich.

Van Jones is the President and co-founder of Dream Corps, a Civil Rights advocacy group.  Jones got his law degree from Yale, writes best-selling books, has served as an advisor to more than one U.S. President, and is a familiar liberal commentator on TV and radio.

Today what’s most impressive about him is that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Newt Gingrich, a conservative hardliner, in a bipartisian effort to end the scourge of mass incarceration in America.   Together and with other organizations, they hope “to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening unlikely allies, elevating proven solutions, and communicating a powerful new narrative.”  For short, the movement goes by #cut50.

How on earth are they going to do that?  Answer:  they just are.  It’s immoral not to.  Think of it as JFK declaring that America would have a man on the moon in ten years, and without any evidence of being on such a track, NASA did it anyway.

The lift will be epic, Herculean.

If America were even to get close to the rates of incarceration in Europe, for example, we’d have to get within spitting distance of 150 inmates per 100,000 people.  The UK, currently with the highest incarceration rate in Europe, is at 148 per 100,000.  (France, 100; Germany, 77; Finland, 58.)  We’re at 707.  Not a miss, but a mile.  War-torn Rwanda’s 2013 rate was 492 per 100,000, for heaven’s sake.  We’re not even in the ballpark.

Can we, as a nation, wrap our heads around the idea that our notion of discipline has morphed into cruelty?  Can we get over the “tough on crime” mantra?  Can we learn and practice empathy, so when offenders are sentenced, we’re actually unwilling to throw away the entire life of that 19-year-old car thief?  Is there any evidence anywhere that prisons improve behavior?  Or can we admit that the humungous size of our prison population strongly argues otherwise?  Interestingly, the most common demographic factor among inmates, including females and whites, is that they are high-school dropouts.  Can we help schools intervene when students seem headed for trouble?

It would take all that and more to cut the prison population from just under 2.4 million to under 1.2.

A sample of initiatives that could make #cut50 successful. 

We need all the good ideas we can muster to get us out of this mess.  A good start would be reversing the three big drivers of mass incarceration, according to The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., outlined in last week’s column.

1.  End “life” sentences.  Remember, Europe considers 10 years to be a long sentence, even for violent crime.  After how many years does a sentence become vindictive, retributive and plain cruel?

One in nine U.S. prisoners is serving a life sentence.  Of these, roughly 10,000 were convicted of a non-violent crime.  Prisoners serving life without parole, those with no hope of being released even as decrepit old people, increased by 22% since 2008.  Most horribly, about 10,000 of the lifers were under 18 when they committed their crime.  Babies.  And about a quarter of them have no hope of parole.  Not that it excuses their crime, but the human brain’s executive function isn’t even fully developed until the early 20s, so they’re still paying at age 60 for what they did at 16.  These are your tax dollars at work.  To what public benefit?

2.  Vastly improve community sanctions.  Give judges the leeway to send offenders home to perform restitution under intensive supervision.  No one’s behavior gets corrected by Corrections.  If anything, prison makes it far worse.  Most inmates are coming out at some point.  You want communities to be fully equipped to handle them when they do come out.  Invest the resources into the community itself instead of ignoring the circumstances that produced an offender.

For example. an impressively successful technique, called “circle of support and accountability” (CoSA) was originally developed for sex offenders, long considered incorrigible.  It is now validated by research.  A CoSA case manager organizes an team of family, neighbors, friends and supporters who work with a team of professionals — social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists.  Together they wrap attention and services around offender as he learns to live, reliably, according to community norms.  If it works for sex offenders, it can surely work for the vandal, the drug addict and most especially the person suffering from mental illness.  CoSA is vastly cheaper than prisons, far more effective at reintegrating miscreants, and dramatically reducing recidivism rates.

3.  End the War on Drugs.  Period.  Why are so many people self-medicating?  Europe treats addicts.  Why do we punish them instead?  Let’s stop.

Do we have the political will to make such changes?  The #cut50 movement is sparking all sorts of debate on the subject.  Is record-breaking mass incarceration, mainly of men of color, really okay with most Americans?  God, I hope not.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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What Does Mass Incarceration Say About American Democracy?

Published by — How we chose to build up the largest prison population in the world.


America’s torrid love affair with jails and prisons is hardly breaking news.  Since the late 1990s, academics called for the end of mass incarceration because their data revealed shameful racial disparities.  Fat lot of good it’s done.  Now we’re up to just under 2.4 million people behind bars, mostly men of color.  The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.  The rate of incarceration is four times what it was four decades ago.

This phenomenon is both historically unprecedented and internationally unique.  Even the United Kingdom, with the next highest rate in the Western world, incarcerates only 148 per 100,000 people as compared with our 707 per 100,000.  The U.S. has more people behind bars than Russia or China.

America’s investment in punishment costs about $63 billion a year — $63,000,000,000.  And that’s not counting such social costs as ruined families, lost income, shame, and stigma.

How in God’s name did we get here?

Speaking recently, Jeremy Travis provided some answers to that question.  Working with the National Academies of Science, Travis is one of the three editors of The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S., which present the conclusions of a huge project that studied the issue.  Each chapter has 2-page summaries, and the whole book is downloadable.  Currently Travis serves as President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the New York City college system.  Previously he was the director of the National Institute of Justice and before that, the Urban League.

Referring to the events and racial tensions of Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, Travis says “The instinct of white people is to talk about the event.  Black people talk about history.  Now we all need to talk about history.”  The current that sparked these events is not recent, but generations old — what Travis calls “the failed promise of Emancipation.”

Let’s start with 1920, which is when incarceration data became reliable.  From then to 1972, we imprisoned roughly 100,000 to 110,000 people annually.  Humongous historical changes took place during that time, including the Great Depression and World War II.  Even Prohibition came and went without changing that number.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s came the social unsettling of America.  The Civil Rights movement exposed profound racial and social inequities.  We also had hippies, “free love” and the decline of traditional communities, as documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  Crime levels rose.  The public felt unsafe.  So President Richard Nixon, among others, campaigned with slogans about being “tough on crime.”  Soon all politicians needed to be tougher than their opponents.  And tough meant punitive, retributive, primitive — an eye for an eye.

The bottom line, Travis says, is that, “We are here because we chose to be here.  Through our democratic process we elected these people — not that I voted for them — but we chose them.  Judges, prosecutors.  And they delivered on their promises by making more things criminal than before.  And by meting out longer sentences.”

The three drivers of mass incarceration:

1.  Legislators, and to some extent governors, got “zero-tolerance” laws passed, such as “three strikes and you’re out.”  “Out” means life without parole.  Lawmakers cared little about the specifics or degree of the offense, never mind the offender’s circumstances.  Just throw away the key.  By now we have what Travis calls “geriatric prisons.  Nursing homes behind bars.  What’s the possible safety benefit?  Zero or close to zero.”  (For the record, Europe rarely imposes life sentences, limiting even murder convictions to 10 years.  A mere decade in prison ruins an offender’s life, so “life” is just vindictive.)

2.  Again, it was elected officials who imposed mandatory minimal sentences, thereby removing judicial discretion.  With non-violent offenses, there’s no public safety benefit to sending a guy to prison when he can serve his sanctions in the community.  Let the judge decide if Johnny wouldn’t be better off living with his family, doing his restitution close to home.  Institutionalizing him in a horrible place won’t improve his behavior.  Indeed, all evidence points to the contrary.  Give discretion back to judges.

3.  By far the biggest driver was the War on Drugs. Drug convictions, which had been rare, grew nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2010.  Rather suddenly drugs became far more available.  Politicians took a zero-tolerance approach to addiction and self-medication, especially among the urban poor.

So people are eligible for prison for far more offenses; offenders serve more time, and they’re barred from humane judges’ wisdom, mercy or ability to consider circumstances.  We, the people, did this – mainly to young men of color.

Travis says, “I think mass incarceration is one of the most profound moral crises in America.  If this is the new normal, we have to be concerned about the value of our democracy and its impact on our communities.”

But now what?  How do we turn around the fearful, punitive, and oh, by the way, racist mentality that got us here?  More next week.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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What Is International Restorative Justice Week?

Published by — The U.S. is lagging the developed world on this issue.

Internationally, the Restorative Justice community set aside November 17-24 to celebrate the power of Restoration.  Of the many sites offering resources on this topic, I recommend Canada’s, for a start.

But what is Restorative Justice?

Well, crudely, it’s an alternative to the justice system we’ve got — the one that now has about 2.2 million Americans behind bars at about $30,000 per inmate, per year.  (Do the math.)  Our punitive justice tends to ruin lives — of the offender and their community — and largely ignores the needs of the victims and their communities.

By contrast, restorative justice works to salvage the lives of all parties, victims, offenders, their families and their larger community, to the extent possible.  Restoration first caught fire in the late 1970s in New Zealand, and has since gone viral, permeating the judicial, social and educational systems of countries like Australia, Sweden, Norway and others.  It’s huge.  We’re lagging the developed world on this one.

To illustrate the distinction, I’ll relate the stories of two youthful offenders, Aaron and Powhare. The stems of their stories are almost identical, until they slam into their respective countries’ justice systems.

Aaron was from a small town in Vermont.  When his parents divorced, he lived with his father.  While he saw his mother occasionally, she did not have custody.  When he was 15, she was killed in a motorcycle accident.  The neighbors were fully aware that Aaron’s father was emotionally abusing the boy, but did nothing.  Who knows what the schools did or didn’t know, but Child Protective Services were never engaged on his behalf.  At 16, Aaron killed his father with a shotgun.

Powhare was from a small town in New Zealand.  I’m guessing from his name that he’s a Maori, an Aboriginal tribe that is a NZ minority group.  Powhare’s parents also divorced; he lived with Dad; mom was only nominally in the picture.  The neighbors knew the father was abusing the boy emotionally and physically, but did nothing.  Protective Services were never involved.  Powhare killed his father with a shotgun at 14.

Their fates diverge with two radically-different justice systems.

Aaron faced America’s retributive system, which asks:

*  What rules or laws were broken?

*  Who is to blame?

*  How should they be punished?

Oddly, Vermont, alone among the states, has a hugely successful restorative juvenile-justice system, which cuts recidivism to single digits and incarcerates the smallest percentage of youth in America. (Massachusetts is 8th lowest; vengeful Rhode Island is 31 from the top.)  However, Vermont law remands violent juvenile offenders into the adult system, where they get the punitive treatment.

Aaron pled guilty to second-degree murder to avoid a first-degree murder conviction.  The Court sentenced him to 22 years.  He now has a swastika tattoo and a mohawk, common efforts to signal toughness to ward off the assaults accepted as part of prison life.  This is our idea of “justice.”

The birth of Restorative Justice

In the late 1970s, the Maori elders demanded that the government stop incarcerating their kids at a disproportionally higher rate than White kids.  Post-prison, young offenders returned home worse — hardened, not accepting responsibility at all.  Instead, the elders wanted the offender, victim and their families to participate in their traditional tribal circle.  This evolved into “Family Group Conferencing,” a model of restorative justice.  All young offenders, of all races, are now offered FGC, although they can opt for conventional Court.  The severity of Powhare’s crime required his extended family to convince the Court of their commitment to supporting the boy’s restitution.

Restorative justice is “victim-driven,” focusing on repairing their harm, as much as possible, so the community can live together peacefully and safely.  Using a formal conferencing process, the victim, offender, and their families work with social workers and police to devise a restitution plan on which they all must agree.  To be eligible for FGC, the offender has to admit his guilt and take responsibility for his actions.  Restorative systems ask:

 *  Who has been hurt?

*  What are their needs?

*  Who is obligated to address those needs, to make restitution, and to restore relationships and the community as a whole, as best as possible?

The face-to-face conference is generally quite emotional and painful.

As a result of his conference, Powhare submitted to intensive Court supervision for 2 years, during which he agreed to live with the extended family.  He underwent a psyche assessment and counseling.  The restitution plan forbade drugs, alcohol or access to firearms.

In the end, Powhare got an education and now works for the NZ forest service.  Instead of incurring taxpayer costs for something he did at 14, he’s a productive, contributing member of family, tribe, and larger community.

To my mind, both boys were themselves victims, but only one encountered a justice system able to tease out his circumstances.  Restoration gave Powhare’s life back to him.  Retribution sent Aaron to prison, a place that turns inmates into primitive beasts, with infinitely reduced chances of making a decent life for themselves when they get out.  Aaron was an abused kid.  Could he have been saved?  Our justice system doesn’t bother to find out.

And people wonder why I’m such a nut for Restoration.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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