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Gary Horton: Land of the free, home of the slaves

Full Speed to Port

Posted: August 25, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: August 25, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Lady Liberty peers outward from behind bars with tears in her eyes. A close look shows she's locked behind the red stripes of a vertically hanging American flag. The Economist cover reads: "Why America locks up too many people." The message? The Land of the Free has inadvertently become the world's largest prison state.

The notion of America as incarceration nation rankles sensibilities. America stands for freedom. We're a beacon to the world. But good luck in America if you run afoul of the ever-lengthening, ever-strengthening arm of the law.

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Our numbers convict us. Today, between some 2.4 million Americans are behind bars. We've got more folks in prison than people in 15 of our smaller states. One out of 100 adults is incarcerated. Including parole and probation, one out of every 31 American adults is under correctional supervision.

Are Americans such depraved criminals we're compelled to lead the world in imprisonment? We expect Russia, China or some backward nation would be the incarceration champion. Not so. The Land of the Free is the home of the slave.

The U.S. incarcerates 748 per 100,000 population. Russia is No. 2, with 600 per 100,000. China only imprisons 120 per 100,000 and Japan locks up a mere 60. Plainly, imprisoning at 12 times the rate of Japan, something unintended happened in America on our way to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Might the problem be more our laws and less ourselves? We already understand how unduly harsh sentences for small-time druggies overflow our prisons. Anecdotal stories illustrate, almost humorously, how we got here and how we find our way out.

The Week magazine reports: "California lawmakers are considering a bill that would make crashing celebrity-filled events a crime punishable by up to six months in jail. The bill is a response to intruders bluffing their way into A-list events such as the Oscars and the Golden Globes. ‘At some awards shows, folks were there without a ticket,' said Assemblyman
Anthony Portantino. ‘They were asked to leave, and they didn't.'"

I suspect Portantino may be funded by a perturbed Screen Actors Guild.

In America, politicians must look "tough on crime" to get elected. Specters of "Willie Horton" haunt every aspiring pol - the impact being that nearly every election politicians push new laws and bid up penalties to look ever tougher than the next guy. And tough usually wins. We've politicized our corrections system and reduced complex crime intervention to a jingoistic "three strikes" throw-away-the-keys mentality.

The Los Angeles Times tells of Gregory Taylor, a 48-year-old man having served 13 years of his 25-years-to-life "three strikes" sentence. A quarter-century ago, his first two strikes were purse snatching and an unarmed street robbery to feed his drug habit. Fourteen years back, homeless and an occasional volunteer and client at a Catholic homeless center, Taylor was discovered one night breaking into the facility through an open window to obtain food.

The supervising priest testified for Taylor, urging leniency. For a loaf of bread, Taylor was sentenced to 25 years to life under California's harsh three-strikes law. Taylor sat in jail 14 years, until recently a Stanford group found trial anomalies, getting a now tired and gray Taylor out and back to his family. Old men, social scientists know, almost never return to crime.

Even America's white-collar laws have gone hardcore. What used to be code fines can often escalate to hard time.

The Economist tells of a small-time orchid hobbyist found with improper documentation for some imported flowers.
Seventeen months in jail after he ran out of defense funds. A railroad construction company executive whose worker accidentally broke a small oil pipe gets six months behind bars for lack of EPA response gear on the offending tractor.

You've seen those "No Trespassing - $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail" signs. Better not take a chance, unless you need free housing and aren't choosy about your bunkmates.

We're suffering incarceration madness at a time when budgets are busted and our states are broke. We pay $30,000 to $50,000 annually for every jailed prisoner. More than $11 billion (one-tenth) of California's budget goes for corrections and prisons. In the age of GPS monitoring and advanced social intervention, politicians selling old-fashioned hard time appears an ineffective and costly approach to stemming crime.

In 1970, Finland went the other way. Finland was Northern Europe's highest incarcerator, with 200 people per 100,000 in jail.

It wisely separated corrections functions from politics and assigned professionals to overhaul its systems. In the sane environment of fact and reason, not politics, the results proved rewarding. Today Finland is perhaps the lowest incarcerator in the industrialized world, with 51 people per 100,000 incarcerated - and crime is similarly low. The Finnish secret? Tons of public service and counseling for mid- and low-level offenders. Lessen the punitive and increase the correction. It costs far less and works much better.

We can scarcely afford funding our schools, and it's time for America to revise retributive punishment with nonpoliticized, cost-effective corrections for non-hardcore offenders.

Perhaps budget realities will provide politicians the backbone and cover needed for pragmatic, rational change. Until then, you'll be paying a million or three in taxes for every wretched soul catching a three-strikes sentence.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port!" appears Wednesday in The Signal.


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