You are viewing the NationofChange archives. For the latest news and actions, visit the new
Get Email Updates | Log In | Register

Christopher Petrella
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Saturday 29 September 2012
“The following list represents a clear set of strategies for reducing our 2,300,000+ prison population without compromising public safety.”

10 Ways to Reduce our Out-of-Control Prison Population

Article image

As someone who writes and organizes around issues of imprisonment and detention my work is often met with a certain type of resignation.  Though many politically-conscious individuals are quick to lament our nation’s chart-topping incarceration rates, they’re justifiably overwhelmed by the complexity and magnitude of our so-called justice system. Many simply don’t know where or how to begin tackling the most salient, silent problem in the United States today. The following list represents a clear set of strategies for reducing our 2,300,000+ prison population without compromising public safety.

 1 . Replace mandatory sentencing laws with more flexible and individualized sentencing guidelines.

By 1983 forty-nine state legislatures had enacted mandatory sentencing statutes and in 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which, though, well intentioned, established 5- and 10-year mandatory sentences for drug importation and distribution. Two years later President Reagan signed the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act granting the federal government authority to penalize all conspirators in drug-related crimes regardless of their role. Mandatory sentencing laws like these limit judicial jurisdiction by preventing sentencing judges from considering a full range of mitigating factors in a defendant’s profile, including the defendant’s role in the offense or likelihood of committing a future infraction. 

2 .  Strategically reduce “three-strikes” laws for non-violent offenders.

Although twenty-six states have passed “three-strikes” laws for violent offenders since 1993, California’s 1994 “three strikes” ruling punishes minor, non-violent crimes with the penalty of twenty-five years to life. Nearly 4,000 prisoners in the state of California are now serving life sentences for a third strike offense that was neither violent nor serious. This figure represents more than 40 percent of California’s 8,500 third-strike offenders. This November, California voters will have a chance to revise the “three strikes” law through a ballot-measure—Proposition 36— which, if passed, will eliminate life sentences for offenders whose third strike is neither serious nor violent. 

 3 . Relax Truth-in-Sentencing thresholds 

Today, over thirty-five states require offenders to serve 85 percent of their prison sentence regardless of their potential fitness for early release.  This is excessive and arbitrary. Federal Truth in Sentencing guidelines emerged in the mid-nineties as a way to incentivize tougher crime policies on a state-by-state basis. States that resisted the 85 percent standard became ineligible from receiving federal block grants authorized by the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

 4 . Organize against prison gerrymandering to ensure that low-income communities—and particularly communities of color—receive a fair portion of federal aid. 

The method by which the Census Bureau counts individuals in prison is problematic. It leads to a significant distortion of representation at local and state levels and results in an imprecise picture of community populations for funding and electoral purposes. The Bureau currently tabulates prisoners as residents of the towns where they are incarcerated. According to the Sentencing Project, however, states can correct the Census data “by creating a special state-level census that collects the home addresses of people in prison and then adjusts the U.S. Census counts prior to redistricting.” California, Delaware, Maryland, and New York have already adopted this important practice. 

5 . Make full employment a domestic policy goal.

In his 2009 book entitled Punishing the Poor, U.C. Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant demonstrates that 60 percent of those incarcerated over the last ten years were living at or below 50 percent of the poverty line at the time of their arrest. Wacquant further argues that roughly 70 percent of those sentenced over the last ten years were unemployed at the time of their arrest.  The message is clear: unemployment in the formal labor market substantially increases one’s risk of imprisonment.

In 1978 Congress passed the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (Humphrey-Hawkins Act) which explicitly affirmed the goals of full employment, growth in production, and a balanced budget. Unfortunately, the plan was abandoned shortly after it was signed into law. Today, however, a similar legislative opportunity exists to work toward full employment. Senator John Conyers, Jr. (D- MI) has recently drafted a piece of legislation-- H.R. 870: Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act—aimed at establishing the National Full Employment Trust Fund to create full employment opportunities for the unemployed and the marginally attached. 

6 . Eliminate the use of for-profit, private prison companies.

By definition, for-profit, private-prison firms rely on steadily increasing incarceration rates for their long-term survival.  For instance, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit, private prison owner and operator, admitted in its 2010 Annual Report that its “growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by [extant] criminal laws.”  To circumvent these challenges, CCA spends over $1.2 million each year lobbying for more expansive crime laws.  In addition, CCA’s performance as a company hinges on contractually guaranteed occupancy rates of up to 90 percent.  This makes the goal of population reduction difficult.

7 . Fund prison education programs and incentivize inmate participation. 

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy recently released a study suggesting that adult prison education programs can reduce recidivism, that is, the rate at which previously released offenders will re-enter the criminal justice system, by 6-to-16 percent. Not only does educational programming help to save taxpayers money, it also allows inmates to develop skills they can take to the labor market upon release. 

In order to increase participation rates in correctional educational programs states should consider adopting legislation similar to California’s SB X3-18 which authorizes California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to grant low-risk offenders sentence reduction so long as they“actively participate in and complete components of in-prison rehabilitation programs.”  Under this plan inmates can earn up to six weeks of early-release credits each year. 

8. Provide incentives for employers to hire “ex-convicts.”

Post-release employment makes a big difference. An unemployed ex-offender is three times more likely to recidivate than one who has secured steady employment.  Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program many small businesses may be eligible for up to $9,000 in credits and/or deductions for hiring formerly convicted employees. Congress should consider taking yet an additional step by passing legislation that temporarily reduces payroll tax liabilities for small businesses hiring ex-convicts. 

9 . Suspend “Operation Streamline.”

In 2011 over 400,000 undocumented immigrants passed through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) immigrant detention system.  The number of detainees has doubled since 2005 when the Bush Administration implemented “Operation Streamline,” a zero-tolerance program that requires the federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of all unlawful border crossers. The program, which primarily targets migrant workers of color with no criminal history, has resulted in burgeoning caseloads in many federal district courts along the border. Prior to the enactment of “Operation Streamline,” DHS Border Patrol agents voluntarily returned first-time border crossers to their home countries or detained them and formally removed them from the United States through the civil immigration system. Further, “the U.S. Attorney’s Office reserved criminal prosecution for migrants with criminal records and for those who made repeated attempts to cross the border. Operation Streamline removed that prosecutorial discretion, requiring the criminal prosecution of all undocumented border crossers, regardless of their history.” As a result, “Operation Streamline” mandatorily forces undocumented migrants through the federal criminal justice system and into U.S. prisons instead of routing non-violent individuals caught crossing the border into civil deportation proceedings. Today, the U.S. maintains a sprawling web of detention facilities, comprised of more than 240 federal facilities, state prisons and county jails, at an annual cost of $1.7 billion to taxpayers. Close to 50 percent of these facilities are now operated by private prison companies.

10 . Support community policing efforts.

Community policing involves building a collaborative relationship between local law enforcement officials and the community. With the police department no longer the sole arbiter of “law and order,” all members of a given community take an active role in promoting public safety and well-being.  Community policing has proven successful in its implementation. A report recently released by the city of Detroit, for example, indicates that an initiative co-launched by the Detroit Police Department and local residents in June has yielded a dramatic drop in home invasions. In the first 120 days of the program, home invasions plummeted by 32 percent compared to the same period in 2011. 

Author pic
ABOUT Christopher Petrella

Christopher Petrella is a NationofChange contributing author and a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He writes on the contradictions of modernity and teaches at San Quentin State Prison. His work has appeared in such publications as Monthly Review, Truthout, Axis of Logic, NationofChange, and The Real Cost of Prisons. Christopher also holds degrees from Bates College and Harvard University.

. . The Republican campaign

. . The Republican campaign platform calls for cuts.....
CUTS FOR THE GENERAL POPULATION. . . . Healthcare we give to prosoners. . the public be damned......raising the age requirement for Medicare to 65 from age 62 ??? Social Security has only been raised by one year SO-FAR....
..The famous three hots and a cot.......CUT FOODSTAMPS.....AND THERE IS STILL THE FORECLOSURE ISSUE
. . .. . . . . . . . . . .
STARVATION WAGES....ROMNEY,, wants to cut the minimum wages ?? Michele Bachman wanted to do away with them ??
..IF people can not afford to live they are given no chioce but to rebel...HELL PRISON TODAY IS BETTER THAN THE GENERAL POPULATION'S BENEFITS.....REALLY SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT....

Just to clarify regarding

Just to clarify regarding point 4: prison-based gerrymandering can have a very dramatic impact on how districts are drawn and political power is allocated, but it does not affect state or federal funding.

When state and local governments correct their redistricting data to solve prison-based gerrymandering, they are ensuring that prison populations don't distort the democratic process-- not cash flows. Adjusting redistricting data to prevent prison-based gerrymandering does not affect funding distribution for the simple reason that no state or federal funding formula is based on redistricting data.

For more information, please see:

Christopher Petrella's picture

Yes, of course. Prison-based

Yes, of course. Prison-based gerrymandering does not dictate state or federal funding in any strict sense, but I'd argue that it can exert an influence on appropriations in indirect ways. Communities (census-tracts, really) that have an elevated political representation at the state or federal level are in better positions to insist upon the dollars that they need. It's not so much a matter of funding, but rather influence over funding.

Christopher Petrella

I find it hard to understand

I find it hard to understand how we as a people can lock people up for life, in private prisons for smoking pot or any other minor crime. The logical questions are: who wins and who loses by doing this? First of all, we the taxpayers lose. Do we really want to pay for TOTAL WELFARE" until a person dies, plus, of course , you have to add the cost of the guards and naturally the profit involved in the entire system. The investors are the winners.
Secondly, how cruel has our society become. Yeah I know, we wiped out the Indians, stole their land, enslaved millions of innocent people, invaded and murdered countless millions, and continue to do so, but still there are a lot of decent Americans out there, aren't there?
My only answer is we live in a one party, two broken wing dictatorship. We are unable to change the system! The game is over. We lost.

I am the co-founder and Board

I am the co-founder and Board chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). I am also a retired detective lieutenant—26 years with the New Jersey State Police and 14 in their Narcotic Bureau, mostly undercover. I bear witness to the abject failure of the U.S. war on drugs and to the horrors produced by this self-perpetuating, constantly expanding policy disaster.

Strangely, Mr. Petrella found nowhere in his article to mention drug prohibition.
It is the 42-year-long drug war that has filled our prisons to the bursting point.

During one 20-year period of that war building prisons became the fastest growing industry in the United States; an industry that stretched our tax dollars to the breaking point.

Before the war started in 1970, those in federal prison for nonviolent drug offenses numbered 3,384, while those serving time for violent offenses, child molestation, etc., numbered 17,302. After 42 years of drug war the imprisonment of violent criminals have increased by 294 percent, while the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders have increased by 2,558 percent.

With every state experiencing deficit spending, we have run out of money to build more new prisons, but the drug offense prisoners just keep coming. Some states think they have found the answer. Alabama, Arizona, and Virginia have started a system of early release to make room for new occupants, but who are they releasing early? They can’t release incarcerated drug offenders because they are all serving mandatory-minimum sentences, so they are releasing violent prisoners to make room for the never-ending stream of nonviolent drug offenders. At this point, U.S. drug policy verges on insanity.

But other prison related horrors have also been created by the war on drugs.
Institutionalized Racism.

To find more racist policies in the United States than the implementation of that war you would have to go back to slavery. I know that is a harsh statement, but I think I can make my case for its veracity.

Who uses and sells illicit drugs in the U.S.? According to the 1998 Federal Household Survey 72 percent of all drug users and dealers in the U.S. look like me; basically a bunch of white guys. Only 13.5 percent are Black folks.
But who gets arrested? Thirty-seven percent of those arrested for drug violations are Black.

Who goes to prison? Sixty percent of those in state prisons for drug felonies are black and 81 percent of those charged with federal drug violations are Blacks. Blacks are now severing an average sentence of six years for the same drug violations for which whites serve an average of only four years. Of defendants convicted of drug violations, only 33 percent of whites received a prison sentence but 51 percent of Blacks received prison sentences.

The FBI has even taken notice of this, in their Uniform Crime Report they asserted a young couple giving birth to a Black male baby has an expectancy of one-in-three that the child will serve time in prison. This is one of the saddest statements I’ve heard in my life. What must that young couple be think when they discover their baby is a boy. If we only changed one word in that sentence, if we changed black baby to white baby, we would have ended the war on drugs 30 years ago because the people in power would not stand for it.

And what about Disenfranchisement? Because so many states say no one convicted of a felony can vote, because nearly all drug violations are now felonies, and because we arrest seven times as many black men per capita as white men for drug felonies— 14.5 percent of the total voting population of black men in the U.S. have lost their right to vote. In Texas and Florida 31 percent of black men have lost their voting rights. Do you think that might have been enough votes to swing an election one way or another?

As I said before the United States is a very punitive nation imprisoning 1,009 per hundred-thousand, while Western European countries imprison their men at rates between 68 and 148 per hundred-thousand population.
Racism drives the war on drugs in this country. We imprison 948 white men per hundred-thousand population. Before I tell you how many black men we imprison in the U.S. let me point out that under the most racist regime in modern history, under South Africa’s Apartheid Law in 1993, they imprisoned 851 black men per hundred-thousand. In 2008 under the United States’ Drug Prohibition Law we imprisoned 6,667 black men per hundred-thousand population. And Blacks are only 13 percent of the problem. How anyone could look at that one statistic and not see institutionalized racism in the U.S. drug laws, I don’t know.

Drug prohibition is an effective tool used by the United States’ prison industrial complex to maintain the largest per capita rate of incarcerations in the world. There are more black men in U.S. prisons today than there were slaves in 1840 and they are used for the same purpose, to make a great deal of money for those in power. Prisons for profit do not belong in a democratic society.

If you want to change this join

on items 1] so you want

on items 1] so you want sentences set by who your lawyer knows ? 3] what % of sentence to be min? 4] bad idea should not count felon for rep districts 5] tell senator reid to pass at least 1 of 14+ job bills sent to senate 6] yes no private jail sherrif joe can do it cheaper 9] faster deportation solve problem

Like commenter PF I too am

Like commenter PF I too am puzzled by the apparent calculated naivete of this article.

A pound of prevention is worth a ton of cure, and the first part of
preventing crime and possible incarceration - even simpler and more fundamental than more jobs and better policing - is simply to not needlessly and crazily criminalize behaviors.

As commenters Larronm and Rageoninaz imply, the FIRST step in de-prisoning America must be to stop the insanity of criminalizing subtance use or trafficking. PROHIBITION MUST BE ENDED!

Prohibition in the name of preventing 'self abuse' is especially noxious. There are thousands of potentially self-abusive behaviors and hundreds of thousands of substances which can be used readily to achieve it. There is no legitimate reason - other than to serve as excuse for a Drug War and a police state - to have a Controlled Substances Act and its arbitrary listing of just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals and other substances which can equally serve as tools of self-abuse.

But now it's easier - anyhow more legal - to possess a deadly weapon - to kill others - than to possess a designated substance whose alleged problem is a potential for self-abuse. A first step in a rational national de-prisoning effort would be to repeal (or otherwise render ineffectual) the Controlled Substances Act.

Christopher Petrella's picture

Although I agree that the

Although I agree that the so-called "war on drugs" accounts for more than a substantial rise in incarceration rates, I periodize prison growth a bit differently. Drug possession/distribution, in my view, is but a secondary cause of record-breaking incarceration. The proximal cause, as I see it, is a larger, period-specific, crisis of U.S. capitalism. Beginning in the late 1960's capital began facing it's most recent "absorption problem" and prisons emerged as one market able to absorb this surplus quickly and quietly. More accurately, in fact, I'd argue that hyper-incarceration reflects the dual crisis of white supremacy (the white power-bloc felt threatened by significant victories during the civil rights movement) AND capitalism that has been justified ex post facto by the so-called "war on drugs."

I generally draw on the work of David Harvey, Loic Wacquant, and Ruthie Gilmore to support my claims. The "war on drugs" argument, though, helpful, is limited. It's also a bit anachronistic because the U.S. prison state began rapidly expanding before the most significant pieces of so-called "war on drugs" legislation were even passed.

This is precisely why I argue that full employment must be a domestic policy priority. Ensuring that all who want to work have opportunities for full-time employment represents the most effective "pound of prevention" imaginable, regardless of incremental shifts in drug policies.

Christopher Petrella

The current system is

The current system is partially based on the exploitation of people for profit. With the bankers and CEO's laundring drug profits (with government approval) and taking their cut it makes more "cents" to have youth selling drugs on the street corner than to have them in school. Their eventual incarceration only adds to profitability in the for profit penal system. The various drug cartels, government and corporate financial sectors enjoy this very profitable cash flow and could give a God damn about the liquidation of people and communities

The naivete of this article

The naivete of this article is breathtaking. Yes, we should abolish mandatory minimums, but there has been nearly 20 years of organizing on this issue, with minimal success. Yes, we need to abolish truth in sentencing laws, but this has been politically impossible through normal political channels. Ditto with the other 8 "ideas."

It is important to understand what the prison industry is all about. The goal of mass incarceration is just that, to imprison millions of poor and minority youth (primarily) to remove them from political activity. Those imprisoned come from the population most likely to challenge our rulers -- African Americans, working class whites, politically conscious men and women of all stripes. So-called "reentry" programs are designed to fail because our government and our political leadership demand this.

All of these ideas are reasonable, and have some merit. They will never happen without a huge social movement, which will necessarily have to go beyond these reformist demands

Christopher Petrella's picture

I respectfully refer you to

I respectfully refer you to Andre Gorz's notion of "non-reformist reform." I didn't cite his work in this piece because I didn't want to rely too heavily on academic language and/or Marxian methodological frameworks.

Very Warmly,
Christopher Petrella

We're currently spending far

We're currently spending far more on prisons and jails than we are on education. If we want to reduce the cost and the prison population, we need to first stop viewing prison as the punishment of choice and make it the punishment of last resort, when nothing else works. As a retired criminal defense paralegal, I'm the first to agree that some people, quite simply, need to be locked up, often for the rest of their lives. The majority of prisoners, however, would fare much better with intensive community supervision. Supervised in the community, offenders hold jobs, pay taxes, support their families, and their children are significantly less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, thus reducing future crime.

Secondly, we need to reduce our love affair with criminal background checks. While some jobs do have legitimate security concerns, we're at the point where it is almost impossible for former offenders to find work doing anything except minimum wage labor. When a person has to pass a background check to flip burgers at McD's, we've gotten a bit carried away with our concerns. If prisoners are to reenter the community and succeed, they need jobs since they generally can't be convinced to just wander off in the wilderness and quietly starve to death. We don't want to give them welfare, unemployment, food stamps or anything else, so we need to at least make it possible to find a job and have hope for the future. Otherwise, with nothing left but crime for a livelihood, it's not surprising when people reoffend.

Although all of the points

Although all of the points mentioned are valid, they would not do much to reduce the volume of prisoners in the U.S.. Two key factors are at work here which have not been addressed in this piece. First, talk to any law enforcement official and you learn that between 50% and 80% , depending on local, of persons incarcerated are directly, or indirectly, involved in illegal drugs. Second, the "War on Drugs" is a growth industry. Billions of dollars and millions of careers are dependant upon it's continuation. Everyting from police officer to District Attornies, to Public Defenders, Judges, jailers, jail builders, For-Profit correctional institutions, Probation Officers, and anti-drug non-profits are dependant upon the illegal drug trade for their existance. If the history of "Prohabition" is any sort of a model, and I believe it is, there should be no doubt that the legalization( licensening, taxing and regulating) of these substances would reduce the crime fighting burden by about half. Perhaps even more. The first thing to happen is that the criminals would get out of the business. There is simply not enough profit in legal businesses for these people. But let's not kid ourselves, it is not going to happen. There is just too much money involved. In 1960 President Eisenhower warned of the growing "military-industrial" complex. Fifty years later it is larger and more powerful than ever. The illegal drug business is no different. Until and unless the citizenry rise up and demand an end to this corruption, it will continue.

See how innovated we can be.

See how innovated we can be. "Let's take over the prison system and make it a business" Does that sound familiar? A guy picked up on a marijuana is costing our taxpayers $25 - $30 thousand per year. Is there nobody with a bit of common sense, logic and intelligence to straighten out this debacle?

"Is there nobody with a bit

"Is there nobody with a bit of common sense, logic and intelligence to straighten out this debacle?"

Not anyone in power...

When you've ended the

When you've ended the criminalization of victimless activities, then do something about our out-of-control militarized police.

Legalize drugs.

Legalize drugs.



In USAmerica, the word

In USAmerica, the word "freedom" should more properly be "license"...

A license for the 1% to steal, lie and defraud from the other 99% and, most destructively Mother Nature, for their short-term profits...

To understand USAmerica one must understand the two concepts that drive this place:

1) Do Unto Others BEFORE They Do Unto You
2) The GDP is ALL that matters...

The Prison-Industrial-Complex and its feeder the Criminal-Injustice System are PROFIT CENTERS for the Plutocracy...

Comment with your Facebook account

Comment with your Disqus account

Top Stories

comments powered by Disqus

NationofChange works to educate, inform, and fight power with people, corruption with community.

If you would like to stay up to date with the best in independent, filter-free journalism, updates on upcoming events to attend, and more, enter your email below:

7 Compelling Reasons Why You Should Support NationofChange

Our readers often tell us why they’ve decided to step up and become supporters. Here are some of the top reasons people are giving.

1. You’re keeping independent journalism alive
The corporate owned media has proven that it can’t be trusted. In a media landscape wrought with spin and corruption, NationofChange stands in very scarce company.

2. You’re sticking it to the rich, powerful, and corrupt
When you have money in this country you can get away with damn near anything, and they do. NationofChange isn’t afraid to expose these criminals no matter how powerful they are.

3. Your donation is 100% tax-deductible
NationofChange is a 501(c)3 charity. People tend to assume that many other organizations are (most nonprofits are NOT) but it’s that 501(c)3 status is a bit more rare than you think.

Read the rest...