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Vol. LXIV, No. 10
 
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
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Conference Looks at Reforming an Expensive and Dysfunctional Corrections Environment

Ellen Gilbert

“If all of you were on parole,” said Vera Institute president and director Michael Jacobson addressing a filled auditorium at the Woodrow Wilson School last week, “half of you would be in prison by now. Prison makes everybody crazy. Everybody violates parole.”

Earlier, director of Princeton University’s Policy Research Institute for the Region Richard F. Keevey set the tone for the conference, “Reforming the Corrections Environment: We Can’t Keep Paying These Costs — Can We?” by citing a 300 percent increase since 1990 in the number of people incarcerated in this country’s jails. With 2.3 million people in jail, he said in his introductory remarks, corrections represents “the largest expenditure outside of Medicare.” The current annual expenditure of $1.2 billion on corrections, he noted, translates as $43,000 per year, per inmate. “We can’t continue on this path,” he observed.

Acknowledging that “reform has been incredibly elusive,” keynote speaker Jacobson suggested that the current financial downturn might prove to be a boon in ending a “four-decades-long grim scenario.”

Describing the current parole system as one “that is almost completely set up for failure,” Mr. Jacobson argued the case for using the current fiscal crisis, “when everything is on the table,” as an opportunity to focus on corrections. “There’s nothing like a good meltdown in the state economy to get people to make decisions,” he commented. “We’re now in a historical moment where reform is possible.”

Acknowledging that “incarcerative” isn’t a word, Mr. Jacobson used it anyway, describing the U.S. as “the most incarcerative nation in the world.” The costs of this tendency are too high, he said, and the large-scale use of jails has clearly not discouraged crime. He cited a 50 percent recidivism rate, with more than half of the prison population returning within three years of being released. “If this was a business,” he observed, “it would have been shut down a long time ago.”

With people focusing more on health and education, Mr. Jacobson suggested that the time is right to “confront corrections issues head-on,” by, for example, reinvesting in rehabilitation that will address the drug abuse, mental illness, homelessness, and joblessness that typically occurs during parole. He noted the importance of “having a job right after prison,” and the fact that “some states are making that connection.”

The audience laughed knowingly when Mr. Jacobson observed that “In this particular field, the more it doesn’t work, the more we do it.” Citing “a large literature on this,” he described the current system as “too big,” having “a minute effect on public safety,” and being harmful in its effects to the families involved. “It simply doesn’t work,” he said. “There is a disconnect between what we know and what we do.”

“None of this reform will be easy,” Mr. Jacobson went on, citing “all sorts of obstacles” like “politics, racism, unions, and private capital in public prisons.” The current opportunity for reform, particularly at the grass roots level “is huge,” he said, adding, however, that “it won’t last.”

Panels following the keynote speech included “Stop the Madness — But, How?” focusing on issues like the disproportionate share of the re-entry burden borne by urban centers. The effects of “generational negative contacts” were considered in the second panel, “The Social Impact and Costs of Incarceration.”

The negative impact of “mass incarceration” was, coincidentally, the subject of “Live from Death Row,” a Labyrinth Books event on the day preceding the conference. At that program, which was co-sponsored by ABC Prison Literacy, Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies, and the Carl Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding at Princeton, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been living on death row in a Pennsylvania prison since 1982, called in to speak with Princeton Class of 1943 Professor Cornel West and Princeton Sociology Professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly. Mr. Abu-Jamal’s books include Live From Death Row, Death Blossoms, All Things Censored, and We Want Freedom.

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