Mass incarceration from a federal and state perspective

Photo by: Tanner Hall

Photo by: Tanner Hall

The United States imprisons more people at a higher rate and for longer periods than any other country in the world.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are over 225,000 state prisoners that are currently incarcerated for drug-related offenses – a costly result of policies created during the drug war that began in the 1970’s.

The “three-strikes” laws, enacted in several states throughout the 1990’s, including North Carolina, is one practice that factors into the country’s high incarceration rates. The laws aim to punish and deter “habitual” criminals by imposing a significantly tougher penalty for each time a person is convicted of a crime. Each state differs in exactly how much time a violation of a third strike receives, but the laws make it so that people are serving sentences up to life for crimes that carry far less weight under normal circumstances.

According to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, over 3,000 people are presently serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes due to variations of the three-strikes laws. The report chronicles the stories of some of these individuals, and shows exactly what it means to be trapped in the system.

Here is a video from the report:

The policies that shape the lack of opportunities given to people after their release from prison can help mold the career criminals that strict sentencing policies attempt to prevent.

Those that are convicted of a crime are deemed as criminals for the rest of their lives. Whether the prison sentence is for three months or for three years, when trying to secure a job, applying for a higher education and/or financial aid and housing benefits, people are forced to label themselves as criminals.

Wendi Bowen of the NC Employment Security Commission explained this concept in an email message, along with its possible consequences.

“If the father of a family is incarcerated, that is potential income taken from that family. After incarceration, he is less likely to find employment with a criminal record,” said Bowen. “If he cannot find employment, he is more likely to return to prison (someone who finds employment is 3 times less likely to return to prison). Having the father in prison and that income gone puts all kinds of strains on the family including financially and it also increases the chances of the children to follow his footsteps and become incarcerated.”

The high rates of recidivism – the amount of people that re-offend – can further damage some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens, decrease public safety and cost the taxpayers unseen millions.

“America is a melting pot of various cultures and with that comes racism,” said Bowen. “This also plays into our incarceration rates. Many of the get-tough-on-crime laws have targeted low income and minority individuals.”

Prison Business

Another side to the mass incarceration topic is the for-profit private prison industry that has taken hold in a number of states.

When the prison population outgrew what the taxpayers could provide, the job was handed over to private prison companies such as the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), who are both dependent on incarceration to maximize their profits. The industry has continued to grow over the last decade across multiple states such as California and Florida, and with that, comes an increase in money spent by the companies on lobbying political campaigns.

Politicians and company executives have adamantly denied lobbying specifically for strict laws that induce high incarceration rates, but in any case, the monetary incentive for the rates to be high remains.

The idea of private prisons is based on the theoretical ability to cut costs while competition among private prison groups ensures high standards in the facilities. According to a report from Temple University, funded by companies within the private prison industry, the industry has succeeded in doing both. However, many reports and stories by other organizations and news agencies conflict Temple’s report and indicate serious problems within some of the nation’s private prisons.

An assessment report of Arizona’s private prisons by the American Friends Service Committee found that the private prisons are costing the state millions each year and are significantly less safe than state-run prisons.

In Florida, an investigative piece by the Huffington Post shows alarming evidence of systematic abuse in for-profit youth prisons, including violent attacks from guards that went undocumented and were neglected by officials.

The effectiveness of private prisons to do as they are designed will undoubtedly vary from state-to-state; however, when the goal of privatization is to cut costs and maintain standards, putting the job in the hands of corporations that are driven by the bottom line produces results that are inconsistent.

“Anytime there is an advantage to anyone for incarcerating individuals, there is a problem,” said Bowen. “Companies, individuals, the government – no one should profit from crime.”

The issues involved in mass incarceration are interconnected with each other and societal factors such as education and income levels. The people in the system are not represented in the political process when they are stripped of their right to vote following their conviction. Money and politics – for-profit prisons and the tough-on-crime narratives – provide the foundation for policies that lead directly to the high incarceration rates seen across the country.

Mass incarceration in North Carolina

In North Carolina, the only private prison facility listed on the state’s Division of Labor website is the Center for Community Transitions, which is a nonprofit organization made up of three support programs, including the “LifeWorks!” program. LifeWorks! focuses on helping people transition back into society after their release from prison.

The program meets every day for the span of two weeks and offers a variety of services and resources for the men and women who sign up. The most prominent aspect of the program is the employment readiness class.

Program Director Patricia Martelly said in a phone conversation that the goal of the class is not to simply give people jobs, but rather to give them the tools necessary to land a job on their own.

The program also provides free transportation, interview attire, substance abuse referrals and access to a computer lab.

Martelly mentioned that the computer lab is particularly important because the public library system has a 2-hour time limit on computer use, which cannot support the time and energy that needs to be committed to filling out numerous job applications, especially for people who aren’t familiar with computers.

After the program is completed, participants receive a certificate of graduation, a source of weekly job leads and a connection to a case manager to see if they have any other immediate needs. In those situations, LifeWorks! can provide clothes, food, hygiene items and more.

The LifeWorks! program is the only one of its kind in Mecklenburg County, and the Center for Community Transitions has not participated in any political lobbying according to the financial records listed on its website.

From a policy standpoint, North Carolina legislature has shown a common interest in stopping the cycle of criminality – at least on the surface.

In 2011, the North Carolina Justice Reinvestment Act was passed in a bipartisan effort to cut costs and increase public safety by reducing the rates of recidivism. The act aims to make sure that programs such as LifeWorks! are adequately funded and inmates returning to society across the state are motivated, supported and prepared to re-enter society without looking back.

According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the North Carolina’s prison population by 2017 will be down 5000 beds from the projections before the act was signed into law:

“This will translate into $560 million in averted costs and cumulative savings ($267 million in avoided costs and $293 million in reduced costs). These savings have positioned the state to reinvest more than $4 million annually (a 40 percent increase in spending) on additional community-based treatment programs to improve outcomes for people on supervision.”

The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission (SPAC) submits a report every other year that assesses recidivism data from prior years and proposes solutions on how to potentially lower recidivism rates. The report published in 2012 reviewed data from 2008-09; however, the upcoming report in 2014 will include data from years under the Justice Reinvestment Act. SPAC expects to see early success with the act, but also cautions readers to have patience:

“As with any large-scale change to correctional policy, expectations for success in preventing future criminality should be viewed realistically. Components of an offender’s criminal history, current offense, and experiences with the correctional system are all elements strongly correlated with continued criminal behavior.”

Moving forward

Back in August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder called for sweeping drug-sentencing reform that would help put an end to the policies and narratives that have entangled U.S. prison system in profit motives instead of rehabilitation.

It is imperative that mass incarceration is addressed with a systematic approach that recognizes how interconnected prisons can be with politics and capitalism. When policies are altered, careful analysis on the impact by unbiased sources can give an accurate representation of how much progress is being made on the issue.

And while some states deal with mass incarceration by allowing companies to turn a profit, North Carolina has avoided privatizing the system and has instead focused on reducing the rates of recidivism, which appears to be a more effective way of cutting costs and limiting the burden of incarceration on the people in the system, their families and on the state.