Our Addiction to Incarceration is Not Sustainable

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System, Mental Illness11 Comments

The United States has 5% of the world population but 25% of its prison population in spite of the fact that the violent crime rate is the lowest it has been in 40 years. Since the mid-1970s the California prison population has grown by 750% driven by sentencing laws based largely on fear, ignorance and vengeance.

But in other states, low crime rates and shrinking state coffers have led to a consensus among lawmakers and advocates across the ideological spectrum that our addiction to incarceration is not sustainable, effective or humane. States as varied as Texas, Arkansas, New York, Colorado and Michigan have passed reforms reducing prison populations without an increase in crime. They have reduced prison terms by diverting low-level drug offenders into treatment programs, releasing elderly or well-behaved inmates early and expanding job training and re-entry and job opportunities.

It’s time for us to stop criminalizing the mentally ill and redirect the millions ($80 million in 2010) we spend to warehouse them in prison into programs such as dual diagnosis or Harm Reduction to address and treat their brain illnesses.  Wouldn’t that be a new humane approach? Our criminal justice system has too often focused on vengeance and punishment rather than on crime prevention and programs to successfully re-integrate inmates into their communities. People coming out of prison need safe housing, drug treatment and job opportunities yet a report in 2012 showed 47% of California prisoners returned to prison within a year of their release (a significantly higher rate than the national average) because these programs are few and far between.

The California state prison system has been described as “criminogenic” referring to its high propensity to make inmates more likely to offend again after their release. It’s time to create a system in which prison beds are reserved for only those offenders who can’t be safely and successfully punished and corrected in more effective and cost-efficient ways.

11 Comments on “Our Addiction to Incarceration is Not Sustainable”

  1. I hear you–and find it all a terrible situation–other than agreeing with you all, I have nothing brilliant to offer for a solution.

  2. My son is now in jail for almost a month. He was 302ed to hospital. While in there he tried to escape through the ceiling. Police were called and he was jailed. He was given drugs in the hospital.This is the saddest time in our lives. He was supposed to get help in the hospital, and instead now he is jailed. He faces two criminal charges. The fact that he is bi-polar and off his meds for a month does not matter. We are stunned to think of our son in jail at this time. There is little to no communication. We only hear from the priest at the jail. The new trend is to lock up mentally ill people in jail.

  3. Having been in jail recently as a protestor for civil disobedience, I got to see first hand what a waste of time it is for so many to be there, without proper treatment for the real issue that got them there. One woman has a severe alcohol problem–she’s white, middle class, and educated, but by her own admission, when she drinks too much–which was most of the time–her life fell apart. She landed in jail for a year for punching someone when she was drunk. Though she should obviously “pay” for her crime, the real crime is putting away someone for a year who can otherwise contribute to society if she were in the appropriate program to help her through her drinking problem and to find ways of coping with life’s stresses without resorting to alcohol. It’s just a shame.

    1. Kim,
      a lot of it comes down to having a good attorney. I am wondering if your friend went with public defender?

  4. Thoughtful and thought-provoking as well. What I like best is that you have creative suggestions for alternatives to incarceration, suggestions that have statistics to prove they work much better than what we’re doing now. Please keep publicizing this issue.

      1. Maureen the pain of my son being jailed from an incident that happened in the hospital psych ward is devastating. We trusted the staff and Drs. They try to say they “checked on him” every 15 mins? We took them to task for not monitoring him more closely, and allowing him to use the phone unmonitored. They try to say he was given “excellent care”. What a joke, He went to jail on the third day , and the said he was “lucid”, and not bi-polar. Even though we told the Drs he was diagnosed by six doctors and two hospitalizations always same diagnosis.

        1. Dee, I am so sorry you and your son are experiencing this travesty. Do you have a NAMI chapter in your locale? If so, call them and ask about legal counsel. Does your son have a public defender? Does your local court have a diversion program? I don’t know where you are located but I hope you can get in to see your son. Call the jail and talk to the “nurse” or medical staff and insist that they give your son his meds. Unfortunately, your circumstances are a regular occurrence in our mental health system; I have experienced the same thing with my son. Because of the paucity of in-patient beds in our mental health system, patients are released after 72 hours if they are “not a harm to themselves or another.” Unfortunately, that does not mean they are stabilized. You might want to read Peter Earley’s book CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.

      2. Maureen,
        I have hired the best defense attorney in the area. We have not been able to speak to our son in almost a month now. His hearing is next tuesday. We have written to him and asked the social workers to include us on the visitation list. There are no names on the list. Upon him being jailed I did contact the Dr office at the jail and faxed them a copy of his medications. My understanding through the priest that he is taking “medication”. What ones I am not sure. We do have NAMI here thanks. I have attended their meetings.I am considering a law suit against the hospital for this situation. I have the best attorney and if he feels we can win, then I will stop at nothing to make sure that others do not end up in this situation.

  5. Thank you Dr. Maureen Murdock, Ph.D. for writing and posting on your blog, and particularly for your advocacy efforts toward eliminating incarceration and increasing medical services for persons who suffer from mental, physical, emotional illnesses and challenges, including addiction. Your succinct data clearly illuminates the problem with our faux criminal system that seeds/feeds the rising monetary benefit to corporate-owned/operated prisons in the U.S.

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