Drug War Prisoners Helping America and Themselves: A Plan for Decarceration

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By Nora Callahan

There is something new in the wind, with regards to the old and brutal drug war.

National leaders, including our President, have acknowledged that sentencing schemes of the last few decades brought us an era of mass incarceration. Admission of grave injustice is new and a welcome respite from the steady drum war beat.

But polices – our laws – still need to change. Presently, all of the proposals at hand won’t bend the future incarceration rates downward and toward decarceration. They do however threaten to placate us with feelings of victory.

When Obama took office, I laid out my ideas for decarceration in early 2009, because the first time I had the opportunity to go to Washington D.C. early in 1998 and sit down with some of our federal leaders, I learned that a few were starving for ideas on ways stop imprisonment and the economic realities driving so many people to deal in drugs.

While my ideas aren’t original, I haven’t changed my mind about them. I know they would begin the era of decarceration. It’s a two-step plan that could walk us into a safer and better world.

Decarceration – Step One

Michael Tonry Photo: UNM Law

Michael Tonry
Photo: UNM Law

My favorite federal decarceration plan was written by sentencing expert Michael Tonry in 1995 and was likely a large inspiration behind the November Coalition’s initial appeal for a drug war amnesty in 1998:

“Stop imprisoning most user-dealers and most property offenders. Revise sentencing standards and guidelines to prescribe prison sentences for violent offenses at 1980 levels. Rescind mandatory penalty laws retroactively. Create special parole boards with the power to consider the release of every prisoner who is over age fifty and has served at least five years and every prisoner who has served ten years or more. The only valid general criterion for denying release would be that, on actuarial grounds, the offender presents an unacceptable risk of future violent criminality. Denying release might also be justified for especially notorious offenders like political assassins and serial murderers.

“What would be done with the diverted offenders? For some, nothing. Most former prisoners over age thirty-five present little threat of violence or other serious offending. The best thing to do is to let many of those released early get on with their lives. For current offenders, depending on the gravity of their crimes, confinement or community penalties are the answer.

“Those confined should receive sentences scaled down at least by half from current levels of time served to 1980 levels and never more than is commensurate with the relative severity of their offenses. Most, however—should be sentenced to community penalties like intensive supervision probation, community service, house arrest, daytime or nighttime confinement, and financial penalties coupled when appropriate with compulsory participation in treatment programs. When it is feasible, restitution or community service should be routinely be ordered.”
Malign Neglect, by Michael Tonry 1995

Decarceration – Step Two

With unemployment rates climbing under a crumbling economy (except for the rich), we have a President on record supporting Prisons-to-Work programs; his wife, and the Vice President support these programs too.

A marriage of the Civilian Conservation Corps or AmeriCorps with Tonry’s Decarceration Plan seems a match that could light a prairie fire of change and keep both political parties happy.

Photo: Michigan  CCC Museum

Photo: Michigan CCC Museum

I’m just old enough to have no personal recollections of President Roosevelt, but have a personal connection to his programs and legacy. Most of my cousins’ fathers were in the Civilian Conservation Corps, meeting my aunts when CCC camps sprung up along the remote Salmon River to build a road. My grandfather taught plenty of men from the city how to hunt and fish in the 30’s. He was literally born on the shores of the Salmon in 1888, a miner raising a family when the “CCC boys” came down-river.

Obama promised green projects to take us into a new world, yet these bridges are still on the condemned lists.

Projects for a green future include improving energy efficiency and developing sustainable renewable energy. Most people think that this would take a lot of extra money, but the money used on endless incarceration could be put immediately to better use: part of the green future needs to be skills-building for people who need it the most, not gray prisons.

Cutting to the quick of these ponderous issues of Public Works and too many people in prison, one memorable obstacle to the success of the CCC programs of the 1930’s was homesickness, fears of leaving home. Measures of institutionalization are required for people to live and work in large and small collectives. People in prison are already institutionalized and thousands of federal prisoners are behind waist high fences. They need meaningful work and job skills as they wear the life-long badge of drug offender. Earlier release increases chances of successful reentry.

Most drug crime is economic crime. Most men and women in federal prison came from neighborhoods where jobs have disappeared, where the drug trade filled vacuum to vortex.

A prisons-to-work program doesn’t cost a cent, and in fact would save untold billions in prison construction alone.

Drug prisoners often express great willingness to serve their country, in lieu of serving soul-numbing years and decades behind bars for their non-violent drug offenses. They would trade hard work for early release, but they want to be able to compete in a modern world, not be relegated to life-long, ditch-digging, drug felons, or serve 30 years on the shores of Alaska cleaning up the Exxon oil spill because they resorted to making a few grand selling some weed.

How will we build public wind farms? Sustainable, renewable public projects and retrofitting so we use less energy is labor intensive. Examples are endless and abound in the Ameri-Corps and other small public works programs. Rapid expansion, with the inclusion of federal non violent prisoners seems uncomplicated a solution to the unemployment and incarceration crisis.

Re-employing prison guards into the same programs as administrators and Corps leaders would create new opportunities for civil servants who long to do meaningful work. Public works programs should employ returning veterans who are having problems finding work, or living outside institutional boundaries. Too many veterans are not able to convert war service into civilian work. Others can’t adjust from war to the competiveness of the job market timely enough, and find themselves homeless, or in prison.

We hear more about diversion programs, and drug courts, and vet courts, and less and less about what will be put in place of the prison pipe line. Divert unemployed people that use or deal drugs to what? If drug users need meaningful employment and stable life to stay clean and legal, offer them a way to move out of the category the problem and into a collective solution.