Rooted in Reason: Nurturing the Seeds of Liberty

Hawaii’s Prison Problem by grassroothawaii
July 23, 2010, 11:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

By Davis Jaress

As first world nations go, America is a country infatuated with imprisoning its own citizens.  As a recent article in the Economist points out, the United States’ incarceration rate is currently over nine times Germany’s and over twelve times that of Japan.  Much of this has been a relatively recent phenomenon: incarceration rates in the United States have quadrupled since 1970.  Between 1995 and 2005 alone, the number of men in the country in prison shot up 34%, while the number of women in prison rose a whopping 54%.  Nevertheless, America’s eagerness to deter criminals with ever-more draconian sentencing practices has had at best lackluster results.  After all, crime rates across the country have stubbornly persisted during same time period, and a 2005 report by the Justice Policy Institute determined that states utilizing harsh (but politically popular) “three-strikes” sentencing laws fared no better than other states in reducing criminal activity.

In addition to dangerously over-crowding the nation’s prison system, unnecessarily harsh sentencing practices involve a host of hidden costs to society as a whole.  Prison, after all, is incredibly expensive: the National Institute of Corrections estimates that it costs Hawaii taxpayers $21,637 every year to incarcerate a single person.  Given that 92.9% of crimes in Hawaii are non-violent property or drug crimes, it is difficult to see how continually ratcheting up prison terms for such petty offenses can be anywhere close to cost-effective for society as a whole.  Liberal use of prison and jail sentences also incurs significant external costs on the families and children of those locked away, who inevitably suffer consequences as a result of a parent’s incarceration.  A 2003 study of California’s justice system by Charlene Simmons found that over two-thirds of her state’s male prisoners and 79 percent of its female prisoners were parents, with an average of between two and three children each. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, as well, determined that 45% of all children arrested between ages nine and twelve and 47% of all inmates have a parent or close relative in the prison system.  While the legislative focus in Hawaii has continually been on harsher punishments, probation and rehab programs with the threat of jail offer a cheaper option that allows parents to stay with and care for their families.

This is not to say that there aren’t people who should be in jail, only that one should consider what is more efficient and beneficial to society given a specific case.  In a rush to appear “tough on crime,” however, American politicians  have continued to legislate ever-stricter mandatory prison terms for even non-violent offenders: in Hawaii, new methamphetamine trafficking charges require 10-year mandatory prison terms, even for petty drug abusers whose participation in “trafficking” is often dubious at best.  While judges could previously use their discretion and sentence such offenders to probation or rehab programs on a case-by-case basis, mandatory sentencing practices have ensured significant societal and tax payer burdens in such situations regardless of the circumstances.  Needlessly disenfranchising those with criminal records only exacerbates this situation, as politicians can safely ignore the interests of such citizens without fear of repercussions at the ballot box; scapegoating petty criminals to garner a few extra votes is relatively easy, after all.

There are states going against the national trend, however.  New York, for instance, has abandoned many of its mandatory sentencing stipulations and has cut its incarceration rate by 15% between 1997 and 2007, while simultaneously reducing violent crime by 40%.  Let’s hope that Hawaii can follow its lead by enacting more socially and economically sensible sentencing policies.


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