The 2.25 million Americans now incarcerated in U.S. prisons is “a staggering statistic, from the standpoints of fairness, cost of incarceration and cost of lost opportunities,” Virginia U.S. Senator James Webb said during his keynote remarks to a conference on “Prison to Work: A Proposal for a National Prisoner Reentry Program” hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project last week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Webb noted that in addition to 2.25 million in prison, seven million are involved in the criminal justice system, either on probation or parole. He’s a co-sponsor of the “Second Chance Act” that provides job training and drug treatment for ex-offenders, and the “Gang Abatement and Prevention Act” that provides $1 billion over five years.
He said that 25 years ago, he was the first American journalist allowed into the prisons of Japan to study the system there, and has been astonished ever since when comparing the low rate of imprisonment and re-incarceration there, and in European countries, compared to the U.S., especially since 1980. At the time he was in Japan, Japan had half the total population of the U.S., but only 40,000 in prison, compared to 750,000 in the U.S. at that time.
But the explosion of the U.S. prison population began around 1980, resulting in the 2.25 million total today.
In his document on proposing a national prisoner re-entry program, author Bruce Western wrote, “The American penal system has grown continuously for the past 35 years. Spending on corrections now totals $70 billion each year. Among men born since the late 1960s, 30 percent of blacks without college education and six percent of whites without college education have spent time in prison, over half serving more than two years for a felony conviction. After release, ex-prisoners experience reduced rates of employment, wages and wage growth, and elevated risks of divorce and separation. Two-thirds are re-arrested within three years, and one-fourth return to prison during that time.”
In his comments, Webb assailed the racial component of U.S. incarceration statistics, noting that while African-Americans are 13 percent of the total population, they are more than 50 percent of the prison population. In Virginia, African-Americans are 19 percent of the total population, and 63 percent of the prison population. “There is real racism in the criminal justice system,” he said. “It is a barrier to creating jobs and housing.”
He noted that when a young person enters the prison system, “he enters a hell in which he’ll never return” affecting his future chances in life permanently.
The Japanese model, he said, differentiates sharply between non-violent crimes and between first offenders and repeat offenders. In the U.S. system, distinctions between violent crimes, drug abuse and mental illness need to be made, he said, adding that mental illness is the cause of incarceration for many people, but “it is not a crime.”
He said the “dominant political ideology” of the last 25 years has contributed to the current “mass incarceration” problem in the U.S. “Political fear and ideology have too long driven policy in this area,” he noted, but now, “People want their new political leadership to say what’s gone wrong, and to begin fixing it.”
He said that some specific legislative proposals will be introduced in the coming year.
In his Hamilton Project report, Western recommends reform in four areas: 1. more training and educational programs in prisons, 2. better transitional services upon release from prison, including a proposed mandatory year of community service, 3. parole reform that limits revocation of parole for technical, not criminal, violations, and 4. the elimination of collateral consequences, including bans from eligibility for housing, food stamps, student loans and other benefits that have no public safety consequences.