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Two More Ideas About Prison Reform

August 20, 2009

After posting on prison reform last night, I opened the NYTimes this morning to find Nicholas Kristof agrees with me.:

“At a time when we Americans may abandon health care reform because it supposedly is “too expensive,” how is it that we can afford to imprison people like Curtis Wilkerson?”

Wilkerson is the man to whom I referred serving a life sentence for stealing socks.

I outlined a variety of problems with our prison system including inhumane conditions; Kristof focuses on something I missed which is cost-effectiveness:

“Look, there’s no doubt that many people in prison are cold-blooded monsters who deserve to be there. But over all, in a time of limited resources, we’re overinvesting in prisons and underinvesting in schools.

Indeed, education spending may reduce the need for incarceration. The evidence on this isn’t conclusive, but it’s noteworthy that graduates of the Perry Preschool program in Michigan, an intensive effort for disadvantaged children in the 1960s, were some 40 percent less likely to be arrested than those in a control group.”

And as such, he calls attention to an “ingredient” for prison reform that I missed in my post: decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use:

“If we want to try a public health approach to drugs, we could learn from Portugal. In 2001, it decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use. Ordinary drug users can still be required to participate in a treatment program, but they are no longer dispatched to jail.

“Decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal,” notes a report this year from the Cato Institute. It notes that drug use appears to be lower in Portugal than in most other European countries, and that Portuguese public opinion is strongly behind this approach.

A new United Nations study, World Drug Report 2009, commends the Portuguese experiment and urges countries to continue to pursue traffickers while largely avoiding imprisoning users. Instead, it suggests that users, particularly addicts, should get treatment.”

Kristof also points out another positive development I missed during my travels: the introduction by Senator Jim Webb of legislation to create a National Criminal Justice Commission. The Act, which is now moving through Congress, will if passed create a Commission tasked to study and make recommendations that would address many (though not all) of the points addressed by myself and Kristof, and deserves our support.

Full text of the act is here. (Notably missing from its problem statement is the issue of voting rights for ex-offenders.) To support this legislation, contact Jim Webb’s office.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.