The number of prison inmates in the United States, the highest per capita in the world, reportedly could be cut in half if states implemented new proposals by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The organization, calling for “transformational change” in the system, touts its “Smart Justice 50-state blueprints” as “the first-ever analysis of their kind (which) will serve as tools for activists, advocates and policymakers.”
The ACLU claims that “the blueprints offer a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs and overall prison population; (and) show precisely how a 50 percent decarceration goal could be achieved.”
The ACLU's Udi Ofer noted that “mass incarceration is a nationwide problem, but one that is rooted in the states and must be fixed by the states,” adding: “Some of the reforms contained in the blueprints are readily achievable, while others are going to require audacious change. But all are needed to prioritize people over prisons.”
The civil-liberties nonprofit wrote that, for example, Illinois could enact “alternatives that end all admissions for drug possession.” The state also could reduce the “average time served for burglary, assault, public-order offenses, theft, fraud, and weapons offenses, among other crimes,” according to the organization.
ACLU Illinois tweeted: “Illinois has 40,922 people in prison. By 2025, it could have 24,898 fewer people in its prison system, saving over $1.5 billion that could be invested in schools, services and other resources that would strengthen communities.”
Illinois is one of 24 states for which the ACLU has created a “blueprint.” Plans for the remaining states, as well as the District of Columbia, are to be available online soon. The organization is using the Urban Institute's Prison Population Forecaster tool to make its recommendations. The institute recently created the tool with information from the National Corrections Reporting Project.
Fast Company explained: “In the forecaster, you can use a drop-down menu to manipulate both prison admissions and length of stay based on category of offense. Under the drug offenses category, for instance, researchers can use a sliding scale to either increase or decrease the number of people imprisoned for possession, trafficking or other offenses, and also decide how to adjust the length of sentence for each crime.”
Researcher Bryce Peterson stressed that “if your end goal is to reduce the prison population or slow down mass incarceration, the main way you're going to be able to do that is to address long sentences for violent crimes.”
Common Dreams pointed out that the release of the forecaster tool and the ACLU blueprints happened at the same time prisoners were taking part in protests in at least 17 states. The inmates were refusing to eat or work, and vowing to continue the demonstrations through Sept. 9.
Organizers issued 10 demands, including improved prison conditions, ending “prison slavery” by increasing pay for inmates' labor, providing prisoners “a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights,” abolishing the practice of sentencing people to life behind bars without the possibility of parole, addressing racial discrimination in sentencing, ensuring access to rehabilitation programs for all prisoners, reinstating Pell grants for inmates and guaranteeing their right to vote.
“Thousands of prisoners are risking torturous repression to bring this agenda forward, and we do not take their sacrifice lightly and neither should you,” the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee declared this week. “Prisoners are facing repression right now as we speak, and it is our duty on the outside to do whatever we can to shield them from that violence of the state.”
Inmates and their defenders have accused authorities of punishing the protesters. “The retaliation and repression was instantaneous and constant,” the organizing committee's Brooke Terpstra told the Guardian. “Leaders were picked off, one by one, and thrown into solitary.”
Kevin Rashid Johnson, one of the instigators of a prison strike in Virginia, revealed in an op-ed for the Guardian that he had been “moved to Sussex State Prison in Waverly, Virginia, and placed in a cell in death row.” The inmate wrote: “I have never been sentenced to the death penalty, so there can be only one reason they have put me here — to shut me up and prevent me fraternizing with other prisoners, as they fear I will radicalize them and encourage them to resist their oppression.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2,220,300 adults were imprisoned in federal and state facilities in the United States in 2013. Another 4,751,400 were either on probation or parole.
About half of all prisoners worldwide are locked up in the United States, China and Russia. The United States leads the way with a rate of 724 per 100,000 citizens behind bars, followed by Russia at 581. England and Wales, with 145 per 100,000 residents incarcerated, represent the average number of residents in prison among all countries.