We are a nation of criminals. We lock up more of our own citizens than any other country in the world except China. A recent study in
Pediatrics reports that 1/3 of our kids will be arrested before the age of 23. The criminal justice system has become part of our everyday life. Our justice system is more aggressive and more punitive than any other time in our history.
Drug possession, underage drinking, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, simple assault, and DUI are the most common offenses committed by 16-23 year olds. Zero tolerance in schools creates records that infect the transcripts of high school seniors applying to college. Zero tolerance in schools sweeps the student-athlete from the disciplined and supervised playing field and into the unsupervised abyss of the parking lot. The cradle-to-jail pipeline is crowded and will continue to swell.
Employers, aided by the internet, routinely conduct criminal background checks on job candidates. We are creating a new category of disabled young adults. Young adults who are mired in this apparatus cannot get student loans because of a drug conviction, cannot get a job because of a theft conviction, cannot get a valid driver’s license due to the sheer expense of paying multiple reinstatement fees and insurance requirements, and cannot get credit are encouraged to continue in a life of crime.
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The danger to the rest of us is that these disabled adults are being forced onto the wrong side of the law and we wind up paying several times over as taxpayers, insurance customers, and victims of crime. Alcohol abuse and drug addiction soothes the pain these people feel for being rejected, unwanted, and worthless. Treatment programs for these folks are so expensive that insurance companies don’t even come close to paying the tab for a 28 day stay. That is assuming, of course, that these young adults even have health insurance.
We are a nation that accepts exposure to the criminal justice system as a part of everyday life. America’s criminal courtrooms are packed, standing room only on arraignment days, with non-violent offenders who will leave the courthouse with a conviction. 95% will plead guilty. 5% will go to trial. The overwhelming majority of those folks who exercise their constitutionally protected right to a crapshoot are convicted. We have public defender system that is beyond stretched. Jail and prison overcrowding is a physical manifestation of our “ends justifies the means” prosecution-incarceration enterprise.
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Between the federal government and the 50 states, we will spend nearly 100 billion dollars next year just to maintain this legal charade of arrests based upon probable cause, prosecutions rooted in fairness not ego, judges that believe it is better to let 9 guilty go free than convict one innocent, and sentencing that is equitable and proportioned. 100 billion dollars in one year alone to support this express lane to disenfranchising young adults and economically disabling over a million others each year.
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We are a nation that needs answers. Prison must be reserved for predators who intentionally kill, seriously harm or rape others. Predators are men and women who have proven to us by their own intentional acts that we cannot trust them to co-exist with us. Mandatory drug sentencing laws must be repealed. Federal sentencing guidelines are beyond rational. Crimes and criminals must be placed into context heard by a judge. Lock up citizens for what they did, not what they might do. Imprison men and women for their crime, not “to send a message to Wall Street”. There are many other ways to punish offenders. Jail and prison should not be the first box checked on a sentencing entry in the majority of the cases.
For less serious offenders, the majority of the defendants, need the equivalent of a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. We need to offer “hold open” sentencing for most misdemeanors and many low level felonies. For instance, the offender pleads guilty to the charges but sentencing is “held open” for 6 – 36 months. A plea of guilty without a sentence is not a conviction. There is no “record”. During that time frame these folks must obtain employment, enroll in school or join the military. They must have clean urine samples free of narcotics, attend regular AA/NA meetings and the BMV should be ordered to erase all reinstatement fees and requirements. Upon successful completion, the case is dismissed. Let’s give certain offenders another meaningful chance. If they screw up, let a judge decide whether or not to continue the “hold open” period and impose more restrictions or sentence the offender for the original charge.
For misdemeanants and certain convicted felons, we need the equivalent of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This is now known as expunging and sealing the record. However, expungements aren’t being used as often as they should, eligibility requirements remain strict, time frames may take the better part of a decade of a person’s life before they are eligible, and the prosecutor’s office has a strong voice in denying such an effort by an otherwise law abiding citizen. Eligibility for expungement and sealing of records needs expanded and the time frame to apply must be shortened.
We need a better carrot and stick approach to criminal sentencing. What we have now is antiquated, expensive and oppressive.