Push to Reform Prison System Brings Unlikely Allies Together

Over the past 15 years, the US prison population has more than doubled. There are 2.3 million Americans behind bars – that's one in 100. About half of the people in prison are serving time for nonviolent offenses, including drug possession. More than 60 percent of US prisoners are black or Hispanic, according to the Pew Center on the States.

With just over 4 percent of the world's population, the US accounts for a quarter of the planet's prisoners and has more inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined.

Corrections is now the second-fastest growing spending category for states, behind only Medicaid, costing $50 billion annually and accounting for $1 of every $14 discretionary dollars. California spends approximately $50,000 per prisoner per year, far more than the state spends on students.

In a May 14, 2011, New York Times op-ed, Michele Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” writes, “Thirty years of civil rights litigation and advocacy have failed to slow the pace of a racially biased drug war or to prevent the emergence of a penal system of astonishing size. Yet a few short years of tight state budgets have inspired former 'get tough' true believers to suddenly denounce the costs of imprisonment. 'We're wasting tax dollars on prisons,' they say. It's time to shift course.'”

The push to reform the prison system has brought unlikely allies together. Earlier this year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People joined forces with Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich who is part of a new prison reform initiative called Right on Crime.

In September, Inimai Chettiar, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union wrote about speaking alongside members of Right on Crime and the faith-based Prison Fellowship at the American Bar Association's initiative to “Save States Money, Reform Criminal Justice and Keep the Public Safe.”

“Never before have so many legislators, governors and advocates from all sides of the aisle come together with a single unifying theme on criminal justice: we need to end our addiction to incarceration,” she writes.

Yet, it's all too rare to hear about their efforts.

Craig DeRoche, former Michigan State House speaker, recently joined Prison Fellowship, which works with conservative politicians to reform the system. In June 2010, DeRoche was arrested at his home after a family member called to say he was drunk and carrying a gun. DeRoche says he knew he was an alcoholic as a young child. At the ripe age of 14, he couldn't stop drinking.

“I had this demon, if you will, that I was very dishonest about and kept out of public view and it really showed up on the stage with a vengeance in 2010,” he says.

DeRoche was on probation for six months and says now that his demons have been exposed, he's free to talk about the failings of the system. “I tell my conservative friends that what we're doing is breaking up families. We're taking a parent away from their children. We're preventing them from providing for their families. We're not doing anything that resembles conservatism as I understood it. I get to see that first hand. I see dots being connected and people saying, 'I needed someone like you to tell me these stories.'”

Tim Cavanaugh, managing editor of Reason.com, the web site for the libertarian Reason Magazine, says prison reform should be a major issue for conservatives, yet more often than not, it's falsely framed as a liberal issue. He notes that Mario Cuomo, the “great liberal governor of New York,” was the pioneer of the three-strikes-and-you're-out law, and California, the most liberal state in the country, passed a three-strikes law in 1994.

Reason's July issue was dedicated to prison reform with articles focusing on prosecutorial misconduct on death row, the costs involved in leading the world in locking up human beings and how California prison guards became the country's most powerful union.

Cavanaugh says one solution would be a ten-year moratorium on new laws at the city, state and federal levels. He would also end the so-called war on drugs. “You can get rid of a huge body of cancerous US legal code just by eliminating the war on drugs. Ending the war on drugs would solve these problems,” he says. “We are the revolutionaries. We are the ones who are trying to tear down the castle walls and there are a lot of folks who want to keep it.”

Robert Perkinson, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii and author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire,” says because the Obama administration hasn't made criminal reform a priority, his optimism varies.

“For 40 years, almost every legislature, most intensely in the South, have made the situation worse by creating new crimes, by extending sentences, by cutting back programs and by increasing prison construction,” he says. “It's going to take a lot of government action and grassroots mobilization to turn this around and dismantle this incredibly wasteful and harmful system. I hope that begins to happen, but so far, we're not seeing the effort that needs to take place, but maybe we're at a tipping point.”

Listen to Your Call discuss what groups and individuals from different political backgrounds are doing to collaborate on prison reform.


Robert Perkinson, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii and author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire.”

Tim Cavanaugh, managing editor of Reason.com, the web site for Reason Magazine.

Craig DeRoche, director of external affairs for Prison Fellowship.