The Sentencing Project calls for an overhaul of the criminal justice system

 

Blames government for high recidivism rate

 

By Chinta Strausberg

 

Calling for a complete overhaul of the U.S. criminal justice system, Kara Gotsch, Director of Advocacy for The Sentencing Project, Friday blamed government policy for allegedly creating the high rate of recidivism coupled with elected officials who don’t want to be viewed as being soft on crime.

Reached in Washington, D.C., Gotsch pointed an accusatory finger at the government for the high number of blacks and people of color currently incarcerated in prisons and jails.

According to a study published by The Sentencing Project, it is the changes in the sentencing laws and policies and not an increase in crime that is blamed for most of the “six-fold” increase in the nation’s prison population.

It is also blamed for the racial disparities of prisoners coupled with the use of “one size fits all” mandatory minimum sentences that prevents judges from using their own discretions in individual cases.

The Sentencing Project reported that more than 60 percent of those in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. “For black males in their 20’s, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day.”

“These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the ‘war on drugs,’ in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color,” the study stated.

Agreeing, Gotsch said the government’s inaction to give existing prisoners a life line needed to help them in their transition and reform is a major contributor to the prison industry’s revolving doors syndrome.

“The whole criminal justice system needs to be evaluated,” she said including law enforcement, arrest policies, what happens in courts, failure to provide adequate defense counselors and the sentencing policies.

“We have extremely long sentences for relatively low-level and in many cases non-violent offenses, people going into prison for inordinately long periods of time.” Gotsch said even when they leave prison “there are consequences that follow them throughout their entire life.

“It’s definitely government policy that has created this policy of continued recidivism and the cycle of crime, but it is not just what’s happening at the back end…but also how we choose to enforce our laws and what laws we criminalize and the punishment you associate with those crimes.”

When asked if part of the problem is some politicians pass strict laws to appear they are not soft on crime, Gotsch agreed. “That certainly is. I think politicians feel they are responding to public incentive, and I think the public has come a long way on the issue of crime and punishment.

“There is a growing recognition particularly for low-level drug offenses and particularly for non-violent crimes that there are better ways to address those offenses other than incarceration….”

She said alternative sentencing like community, drug treatment, intensive supervision, and community-based punishments are much more appropriate. “Even though progress is being made, there is still the mentality as a politician I need to be tough on crime and if I don’t I will lose elections. Ultimately, that set of old mindset is what is holding large scale reform back,” Gostch said.

“Racial disparity in the criminal system has been plaguing this country for a long time. We have a disproportionate impact on who is incarcerated and the consequences of that incarceration and the subsequent record that people maintain for the rest of their lives have had a disproportionate impact on people of color and even after you leave incarceration; it makes it very difficult to become successful as contributing members of society.

“In some states, a felony drug conviction can permanently bar you from ever receiving food stamps or welfare benefits,” Gotsch said.

“If someone is coming out of incarceration, they don’t have a lot of options. It is very difficult to find employment. It’s very difficult to find employment…housing.” She said all too often they come from impoverished communities.

“If there isn’t some sort of government assistance provided to people, how can someone coming out of prison get back on their feet and successfully re-enter our communities.

“That is what contributes to the cycle of crime where individuals come in and out of this criminal and prison justice system. It sorts of criminally stigmatizes them and prevents them from getting out of poverty, getting an education and moving on with their lives,” said Gotsch.

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host.