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8 May, 2009 18:18

Debt reshapes America’s criminal justice system

Debt reshapes America’s criminal justice system

Free the prisoners. Eliminate the death penalty. Legalize marijuana. America’s recession is forcing states to reshape their criminal justice systems.

Over 1,000 convicts walked out of Kentucky’s prisons without completing their sentences. In Virginia, prisoners were used to strip the Southampton Correctional Center, and then they were shipped out.

America’s war on drugs and tough-on-crime strategies are shameful failures that have accomplished three things. They have put outrageous numbers of people in jail, won innumerable votes for politicians and created ridiculous bills that states can no longer afford.

25% of the world’s prisoners are locked in cells in America. “Local, state and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year,” says Virginia’s Senator, Jim Webb.

Critics have been hounding governments for years about their ineffective and expensive policies. Now that their budgets are flaming red, states have a motive for change—one that they cannot ignore or regard passively— insufficient funds.

Kentucky’s Attorney General sued the state for releasing more than 3,500 felons from prison and parole supervision in an effort to save $30 million.

Closing correctional facilities such as Southampton was announced as part of Virginia’s budget reduction plan. Despite the criticism, Governor Tim Kaine felt demolishing Southampton was better than “spending scarce capital and operations dollars on inefficient buildings.”

When state budgets are flush, prisons are something that governors and legislators all support, and they don’t want to touch sentencing reform. But when dollars are tight as they are now, you have to really make tough choices. And so now things are in play,” says Barbara Krisberg of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Kansas Senator Carolyn McGinn wrote a newspaper article to clarify her bill that seeks to cut state costs by eliminating the death penalty.

In her article, McGinn argued that Kansas has enacted and abolished the death penalty a number of times. And although it has been back on the law books since 1994, no one has been executed since 1965.

By eliminating the death penalty, McGinn claims, “our state could save more than $500,000 per case…Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, New Hampshire, Maryland and Washington are also looking to abolish the death penalty.”

An Urban Institute study found that filing a death notice costs Maryland taxpayers an additional $670,000 per case. If a death sentence is won, another $1.2 million is added to the bill.

In 20 years, the death penalty alone cost Maryland taxpayers at least $186 million, according to the Urban Institute. Only five people were executed and five people were awaiting execution.

McGinn explained that the “added cost is a result of investigation, lengthier trials and higher cost and frequency of appeals. Death cases have [federally mandated] criteria that also includes specially trained lawyers and judges and a more extensive juror selection and instruction process.”

Incarceration is a bandage that has become a wound. “We have been incarcerating more and more people," Senator Webb said.

A large portion of these convicts are non-violent offenders, people who are mentally ill or substance abusers and minor drug dealers.

“We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives,” Senator Webb says. “We need to fix the system.”

Tom Ammiano, a California Assemblyman, proposes that going into the drug business is the double fix California needs. Instead of spending tax dollars to lock up marijuana offenders, he wants to legalize the drug and earn $1 billion tax dollars from those selling it.

“With the state in the midst of a historic economic crisis, the move towards regulating and taxing marijuana is simply common sense,” he says.

“Marijuana already plays a huge role in the California economy. It’s a revenue opportunity we quite simply can’t afford to ignore any longer,” said Stephen Gutwillig, a director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

America also cannot afford its strict, conservative policies any longer. The deeper U.S. states find themselves in the hole, the more creative and liberal the tools they will need to consider to dig themselves out.

Michelle Smith for RT