Within seven days of reading this, more than 10,000 prisoners will have been discharged from the venomous abyss of state imprisonment back into society. And within 36 months of reading this, more than 50 percent of them will have returned.
Quite simply, for many, despite a genuine wish to reintegrate, the stigma of having one’s entire life paraphrased into one five letter word — felon — proves too powerful to overcome. Apartments decline to rent. Jobs refuse to hire. And politicians — quite possibly the only other species as detested and abhorred as felons — regularly designate felons as “pull lever in case of political emergency” scapegoats.
Indeed, few crass categorizations more effectively doom one to an insufferable lifetime of appraisal and public condemnation. I was recently reminded of this by Florida GOP Chair, Lenny Curry, who stated he believes a government panel ought to decide which former felons are permitted to vote and which ones aren’t. On Hardball with Chris Mathews, he even went so far as to suggest that felons should have to “apply” to vote.
But I can’t help but find Mr. Curry’s position paradoxical. On one hand, he is a Republican that presumably detests bureaucracy. Yet on the other, he believes bureaucracy is the picturesque solution to his non-existent — desperately contrived — problem.
Considerably more disturbing, though, is that Curry’s mindset appears to be indicative of a broader national trend. That is, a number of states have now embarked on a voyage to make it harder for former convicts—despite having already fulfilled their debts to society—to re-gain voting rights.
Drugs, fiscal responsibility, and mandatory minimum sentencing
It’s no coincidence voting rights have suddenly come under fire in the midst of a hotly contested presidential race. According to The Bureau of Justice more than half of the prison system population is comprised of African Americans and Latinos.
But a much larger problem looms, namely due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws advocated over the years by “tough on crime” Republicans. According to the ACLU, the U.S. has now become home to more than 2.3 million prisoners — roughly 1 out of every 100 Americans — spectacularly dwarfing the prison population of every other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran.
Nowhere has the judicial system’s failure been more evident than when it comes to the drug war and mandatory minimum sentencing. My home state, Oregon, is a tragic example. According to the Bureau of Justice of Statistics, Oregon expends $87.22 a day and $31,837 a year to house a single inmate and currently houses more than 14,000 inmates. This equates to more than $1,414 per household every two years.
What’s more, Oregonians pay $225 million annually in order to operate Oregon’s rehabilitative programs which have a 10% recidivism rate, but pay $1.34 billion annually to operate Oregon’s prisons which have a 28% recidivism rate—a rate almost 20% higher.
The fiscal fiasco, however, extends far beyond the eccentric margins of “Portlandia.” All-in-all, state, local, and federal governments across the country spend a combined $68 billion annually to keep America’s prison business thriving, $50 billion alone of which is used to enforce drug prohibition.
America wasn’t always in the business of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” though. According to Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, “In 1981, only 22 percent of federal inmates were drug prisoners. Today, 60 percent are drug prisoners.”
No such thing as “too far gone”
To typecast the convicted felon is most certainly a dolefully shallow exploit. One might be surprised to learn just how many souls have yet to waft beyond the pale. There are also a vast number of sentencing anomalies and prosecutorial abuses within the justice system — discrepancies that a significant portion of society continues to stubbornly refuse to acknowledge, much less remedy. Indeed, the American justice system, despite its name, is ripe with injustices that plunge like rotten apples on both sides of the judicial fence.
This is not to suggest that individuals aren’t accountable or liable for their actions. They are. Responsibility, indeed, is a vital condition of a free society. But at what juncture does punishment supersede the crime and subsequently — intentionally or not — render rehabilitation entirely inept?
According to a survey conducted by The Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 49,000 inmates — roughly 9.6 percent of the overall prison population — has been sexually victimized. Another 21 percent are physically assaulted every 6 months. In fact, abuse is so common within the prison system that, as one scholar nonchalantly phrased it, it’s merely “part of the prison experience.”
So is it any wonder why more than half of all prison and jail inmates suffer from depression or other mental health problems? Is it any wonder why 32 percent of all deaths within the jail system can be attributed to suicide? Can one plausibly expect to send a young first time offender into a prison full of lions and emerge a lamb? Clearly, a decision must be made as to whether the goal of the state is to generate accountability and rehabilitation, or disfigure and maim.
Some are fortunate enough to live in a state that reinstates voting rights. Millions across the United States, however, not only never receive their voting rights back, but never receive any life back at all. Consequently, these millions are often doomed to a revolving door, frequently at the expense of taxpayers.
These aren’t monsters asking for a handout. Nor are they angels entitled to special consideration. They are merely Americans asking—often begging—to be treated again like humans after having successfully fulfilled their debts to society.
Is that too much to ask?