To The Daily Sun,
There is mounting mutual bipartisan support to make drastic reforms to the U.S. criminal justice and prison system from political leaders as diverse as President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul.
In a speech that he gave to the NAACP on Tuesday, July 14, President Obama stated that although the United States only has 5 percent of the world's population, 25 percent of all people in the world behind bars are in the U.S. During my lifetime, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled from approximately 500,000 prisoners in 1980 to approximately 2.2 million Americans behind bars today.
President Obama pointed out that we have four times more people in prison than China (even though China has a larger population) and we have more people behind bars than the top 35 European nations combined. U.S. taxpayers spend approximately $80 billion a year to fund the U.S. prison industry. President Obama explained that $80 billion is enough money to "pay for universal pre-school for every 3 and 4 year old in the United States", "double the salary of every high school teacher in America," or "eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities."
The deplorable condition of the U.S. prison and criminal justice system today causes us to lose significant moral credibility as a supposedly free nation. Winning first place for locking up the highest percentage of our population is not something in which we as a nation should take pride.
Even worse, President Obama correctly points out that our nation's criminal justice system "remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth, a source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and on communities and ultimately on our nation."
In this speech, President Obama makes six specific recommendations with bipartisan support to enact comprehensive reform for the U.S. criminal justice and prison system that we as citizens should whole-heartedly support:
1. Reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders.
2. President Obama said in his speech, "We ask police to go in there and do the tough job of trying to contain the hopelessness when we are not willing to make the investments to help lift those communities out of hopelessness. That's not just a police problem; that's a societal problem.... We've got to make sure boys and girls.... are loved and cherished and supported and nurtured and invested in."
Right here in Laconia, we have a fabulous police force led by Chief Adams working diligently to keep our city safe while treating all citizens with dignity and respect. We as members of this city, this state, and this nation also have a responsibility to do our part. We need to support and fund efforts to revitalize communities and youth development programs both here in Laconia, throughout our state, and throughout our nation to give all of our kids and all of our citizens a fighting chance. We need to stop trying to contain hopelessness — we need to offer more reasons to hope and more opportunities to more youth and more people.
3. In his speech President Obama said, "We've got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different. Don't just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens...." Based on my 15 years of professional experience, when you respond to teens making poor choices as future criminals, they often grow up to be criminals. When you respond to teens making poor choices as future citizens with the potential to lead healthy, positive lives, they often grow up to become productive citizens. I am not proud of every choice that every teen with whom I have worked has made, even when we offered the more compassionate approach. Nevertheless, it is my experience that the positive approach of offering opportunities, support, education, pro-social community connections, and guidance combined with compassionate accountability is usually more effective than a punitive approach.
4. President Obama declares, "We should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country." We must promote and support efforts to reduce the appallingly high number of rapes, gang activity, and over-crowding in our U.S. jails and prisons. I also agree with President Obama that we must end the extensive over-use of solitary confinement in U.S. jails and prisons.
5. We need to support initiatives to give prisoners that have served their time and are trying to reintegrate into society opportunities to achieve legal, gainful employment. Please support the current initiative to "ban the box" on job applications related to ending criminal background checks for job applicants unless the background check is directly relevant and necessary for a particular job.
6. We should allow former felons that have served their time and reintegrated back into society the right to vote.
As President Obama said in his speech, "Any system that allows us to turn a blind-eye to hopelessness and despair, that's not a justice system, that's an injustice system... Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it's the presence of opportunity."
Words written by Pope Francis this past spring seem particularly pertinent here: "We should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights."
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
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