500 Percent More Prisoners | Letters | Chicago Reader

500 Percent More Prisoners 

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Thank goodness for Judge Leo Holt ("A Law Abiding Judge," March 5). Would that we had more like him. Perhaps then we would not have as many innocent people in our jails and prisons today. We would not be harming the lives of so many young people from poor communities of color by refusing to recognize that alternative programs of education, job training, or drug rehabilitation, and not prison, is what they need. A shocking 15 percent of the prison population would not be made up of the mentally ill.

Somewhere around 1972 (in response to the Attica rebellion and in fear of wider rebellion in poor communities of color, it has been argued), criminal justice policy in this country dramatically changed. We began to put people in jail at an ever more alarming rate. Between 1972 and 2004 there was no appreciable change in the U.S. crime rate, whether for violent or nonviolent crime. There were slight variations, but no major shift. This is a matter of record. During the same period of time there was a 500 percent increase in the imprisonment rate. The degree of this change is astonishing and altogether unjustifiable.

To say that the burden of this wrongful policy has fallen primarily on poor black communities is almost an understatement. Black men are eight times as likely to be incarcerated. Unequal treatment is found at every level of the criminal justice system: arrest, prosecution, sentencing, and length of stay in prison. Studies of drug crime have found that while blacks are no more involved in drugs than whites, they are arrested and prosecuted at a far greater rate.

Of course even if every judge was Judge Holt, he/she would still be saddled with laws like mandatory minimums or three-strike laws enacted by unprincipled politicians. These politicians have competed with each other for votes by pushing a "hard on crime" agenda despite having the facts listed above and the results of studies showing that alternative programs work. The laws they've enacted have tied judges' hands, causing some to protest or even to resign. We the people must wake up. We must acknowledge that criminal justice policies put in place in this country over the last 30 years are neither practical nor right. And we must push for dramatic change.

Tony Hintze

W. Albion

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