The recent discovery of the bodies of six women at the Ohio home of a sex offender is further proof that our criminal justice system is broken.
On October 28th, police in Cleveland found the badly decomposed bodies of six women at the home of Anthony Sowell, 50. Officers made the gruesome discovery as they were trying to serve search and arrest warrants on Sowell in a rape investigation. All of the murdered women were African-American. Sowell, who is also black, was convicted of rape in 1989, and served prison time from 1990 to 2005.
Unfortunately, for many convicts, prison is a revolving door. Recidivism is a problem across the country, particularly among sex offenders. Part of the issue is that while America used to care about rehabilitation, or at least paid lip service to the notion, the emphasis these days is on retribution. Society seeks to punish, but without any concern about these inmates once they return to the outside world.
With education, job training, mentoring and substance abuse programs in short supply behind bars, it is a challenge for inmates to clean up their acts and improve their situations. When they are released, ex-felons face an uphill battle to land even the most menial, low-paying jobs. This nation continues to punish the formerly incarcerated after they have paid their debt to society. Many professions and employers bar applicants with a criminal record, and many public housing and college loan opportunities are beyond reach.
Not surprisingly, many ex-cons cannot care for their families or become productive members of society. But they do manage to hone their skills and become better criminals.
For all of the money that America spends on prisons, the nation has very little to show for it. At close to 2.5 million prisoners, the United States has the world’s largest prison population. According to the Pew Center, this number swells to 7.3 million when you include individuals on probation or parole. We have 25 percent of the world’s inmates, but only 5 percent of the world’s population. No other country comes close, either in absolute numbers or on a per capita basis.
Many inmates are poor and uneducated, products of a broken public school system that has funneled them into a cradle-to-prison pipeline. According to the U.S. Justice Department, 16 percent of state inmates are mentally ill. They could not afford a defense dream team.
Moreover, racial disparity is an integral part of the criminal justice system. More than 90 percent of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are white. Meanwhile, 70 percent of inmates are of color. Forty percent are African-American, and one out of every nine young black men is behind bars. People of color are more likely to be searched and arrested than whites, more likely to be prosecuted and convicted for the same crime, and more likely to serve longer sentences. And the failed “war on drugs” has only devastated black and brown communities.
America spends $60 billion per year on prisons. What fuels this prison boom is not the crime rate, but money and politics. Politicians, prosecutors and judges, eager to win votes, assume a “tough on crime” posture. Legislatures enact Draconian sentencing laws, including “three-strikes” laws, and tough sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The businesses that supply the prisons, ranging from the food industry to equipment manufacturers to phone companies, rely on the steady flow of warm bodies to fill the beds. Private prisons are also a booming industry – they even trade stocks on Wall Street.
Yet, with the economic recession and budget crises, states and localities can no longer afford prison expenditures. A federal court has ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 inmates, due to the unconstitutional medical and mental health conditions caused by overcrowding. Philadelphia was also sued because of its prison overcrowding, and Arizona, faced with a budget shortfall, may become the first state to place its entire prison system – including its death row – in private hands.
Clearly, this madness must end. From the lack of rehabilitation and the racial disparities, to hyper-incarceration and the profit motive, America’s criminal justice system needs an overhaul. The current system does not serve its prisoners well, and it does not serve the general public at all.