Wants to try alternatives to warehousing prisoners

To the editor:

One of the biggest problems we hear regarding our prisons is the issue of overcrowding. We know that we have too many people in spaces built for many less. What we don’t seem to question is why our prisons are overcrowded and what we can do about the problem.

Automatically, when these questions are raised, answers like “there are so many criminals doing criminal things” or, “well, at least those breaking the law are off of the street, keeping the public safe. What’s the problem?”

These sentiments can be traced back to the ideas of getting “tough on crime” and the “war on drugs” from decades gone by. But while it may seem that we’re putting offenders away and punishing them for their crimes, what’s really happening is that we are creating another problem. The problem is that we are creating prison overcrowding as a result of staunch rules in our system of sentencing for criminal offenses. I’m speaking particularly of mandatory minimum sentencing rules, especially surrounding issues of “three strikes” and similar laws, in case of drug offenses. Individuals who are convicted of repeat drug offenses often receive ridiculously high prison sentences mandated by mandatory minimum sentencing rules.

If this problem occurs on a widespread scale, which it does and has been, the result is the intensely high numbers of prison inmates that we currently are seeing. Judges are given less and less discretion to take other circumstances and facts into account in individual cases of drug offenses; instead they must hand down the sentence that the law requires. In fact in Pennsylvania, the prosecutor is the only person who can waive mandatory minimum sentencing; the judge has no hand in the decision at all. While it may be true that putting an individual in prison not only punishes his crime but could get him off of drugs, this certainly isn’t always true and isn’t always the best method of reformation. There can be drugs available in prison, smuggled in through visitations or corrupt correctional officers in some cases.

Wouldn’t it be better to take the time to fully concentrate on rehabilitation outside of the prison and providing help to these drug offenders, to focus on helping them completely give up drugs and develop a stable lifestyle? This would lessen the strain on the prison system in numbers of prisoners to be housed, which would in turn cut down the cost of running prisons.

While it may be a more up-front cost, generally the cost of rehabilitation programs, educational classes, and other more active assistances is lower than housing a prisoner for years on end. Not only the monetary benefits, but the societal interest is weighty as well; more people getting off of drugs now may mean less people starting them later.

There could be a positive influence between peers and inter-generationally, leading fewer and fewer people to be pulled into using drugs. Isn’t it time that we take a part of our ever increasing prison budgets and put them toward helping people avoid prison rather than warehousing them inside of it?

Abigail Walter