Mandatory minimum sentences are not only expensive, they are inhuman. 

One Million Prisoners Too Many

Late last year, Michael Robles received a 25 year prison sentence for trying to buy a macadamia nut.

Robles had been in trouble with the law before, but by all accounts was the model of a reformed ex-con. After serving sentences for a string of nonviolent crimes, including burglary and petty theft, Robles had decided to go straight. He got a steady job, got married, even started mentoring at-risk neighborhood teens, advising them to stay away from the paths that led him to crime. Nevertheless, when undercover narcs arrested Robles for allegedly "attempting to possess an imitation controlled substance" — a macadamia nut posing as rock cocaine — the judge and jury overlooked Robles' clean parole record and community involvement. And because of California's Three Strikes law, Robles got hit with an absurdly long sentence: 25 years to life in California prison.

While it may seem merciless to lock someone like Michael Robles away for 25 years, that has become the all-too-common fate of many nonviolent offenders. A new study by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) reveals this troubling statistic: For the first time, more than 1 million nonviolent offenders were incarcerated in America in 1998. The JPI report showed that over the past 20 years, 77 percent of new prisoners were imprisoned for offenses that involved neither harm, nor the threat of harm, to a victim. Many of the 1.2 million nonviolent prisoners, especially those arrested for drug-related crimes, are behind bars because of increasingly harsh "mandatory sentence" and "three strikes" laws — laws supposedly enacted to keep murderers and rapists off the streets.

"Prisons are built and mandatory sentencing laws passed on the specter of rapists and killers," says Vincent Schiraldi, JPI's director. But, as the report states, "The people sent to prison are not the Ted Bundies, Charlie Mansons, and Timothy McVeighs — or even less sensationalized robbers, rapists, and murders — that the public imagines them to be ... [These] 1.2 million people have been warehoused for nonviolent, often petty crimes."

As the report points out, the economic ramifications of locking up 1.2 million nonviolent criminals are staggering. Approximately $24 billion was spent in 1998 to incarcerate nonviolent criminals — one and a half times what the federal government spent on welfare and six times more than it spent on child care. We spend $100 million more every year building prisons than universities. Each nonviolent prisoner costs taxpayers $20,000 a year — not taking into account the lost productivity of 1.2 million citizens, most of whom were once taxpaying wage earners.

"Spending more to lock up nonviolent offenders than to feed or educate our country's children is a cruel, self-fulfilling prophecy," said JPI Policy Analyst Jason Ziedenberg. "It's not just bad public policy, it's downright mean-spirited."

Among the other findings of the JPI report are these startling comparisons:

Our nonviolent prison population is larger than the combined populations of Wyoming and Alaska.

Our nonviolent prison population is three times the ENTIRE prison population — violent and nonviolent — of the European Union, even though the EU includes 100 million more people than the U.S.

The 1.2 million nonviolent offenders we lock up represent five times the number of people held in India's ENTIRE prison system, a country with roughly four times our population.

Explanations vary about why our nonviolent prison population has grown so dramatically in the past 20 years. Many critics chalk it up to the increasingly punitive policies of the "war on drugs." Drug offenders now make up 59 percent of federal inmates, as opposed to 16 percent in 1970 — and of those offenders, approximately 80 percent have been jailed for possession. Instead of offering those drug users and sellers help, critics argue, our war on drugs mentality has spawned mandatory minimum sentences and "three strikes" laws — both of which are supposed to lock away the big fish, but end up catching the small fry.

Others attribute our mushrooming nonviolent prisoner population to corporate greed. One such critic is Michael Robles' wife, Roberta, who has founded a grassroots organization called CATS — Californians to Amend Three Strikes. Her language is peppered with insights about the "prison-industrial complex" that makes billions of dollars every year.

"Wall Street owns the prison industry, which basically provides slave labor for large corporations," says Roberta. "Building and maintaining prisons is a huge industry that many people want to keep growing and growing."

The explosion in our nonviolent prisoner population has not gone without notice by human rights organizers. Advocacy and support groups for nonviolent prisoners and their families — unnecessary 20 years ago — are springing up across the country. Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., has attracted 33,000 members since its inception in 1991. Over the week of April 11-18, thousands of people participated in "Go to Jail Week," a national series of protests which highlighted the overuse of incarceration for nonviolent criminals. Roberta Robles' grassroots group, CATS, has drawn letters of support from all over the world.

"People write to me because they hear the stories of nonviolent criminals — like Michael — who get locked up under mandatory minimums," says Roberta. "Like the man who got 25 years for stealing a bottle of Visine, or the woman who got 25 years to life for stealing a dress for her daughter to wear to church. But if we keep challenging these harsh sentences, case by case, eventually the justice system will see how wrong they are — and how much damage they do."

(The Justice Policy Institute study can be found at http://www.cjcj.org/jpi/onemillionpr.html)

Tate Hausman writes for AlterNet, the syndication service of the alternative press.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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