Busting Out: Ten Things Citizens Can Do to Reduce Rates of Incarceration

Reducing Incarceration

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The following is part of a series of articles on prisons and over-incarceration in America. For more, read Jailing the American Dream and Getting Smart on Crime.

The United States has 5 percent  of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Some criminologists have found that when too many people are incarcerated the crime rate actually increases. Imagine if we spent some of the $70 billion a year prisons cost on education, job training, and health care. Paul Butler, a law professor, former federal prosecutor, and author of Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, suggests ways to undo the damage caused by overincarceration:

Do your jury duty. If you are a juror in a nonviolent drug case, vote not guilty. Jury nullification—an acquittal based on principle—is perfectly legal. The framers intended jurors to be a check on unjust prosecutions and bad laws. For more, see www.drugpolicy.org/law/marijuana/jurynull.

Pay a kid to graduate. A report by the RAND Corporation found that paying students to finish high school prevented more crime than the toughest sentencing laws. Dropping out of school creates a high risk of ending up in jail. Work with your community group or place of worship to create a program to pay at-risk students to graduate from high school.

Come out of the closet about your drug use. War-on-drugs propaganda says users are bad people. Let your fellow citizens know the real face of the American drug user. Don’t be scared. Barack Obama admitted he used marijuana and cocaine during his youth, and he got elected president!

Hire a formerly incarcerated person. Every year about 600,000 people get out of jail. The odds are against their landing a job, which is a huge factor in why more than half will be rearrested within a year. Go to www.hirenetwork.org and click on “Employer Resources.” If you are formerly incarcerated, click on “Resources and Assistance,” or go to www.reentrypolicy.org and click on the U.S. map.

Vote for politicians who are smart on crime. Tougher sentences aren’t the answer. For example, in assault convictions, American prisoners receive sentences twice as long as English prisoners, four times as long as Canadian prisoners, and five times as long as Dutch prisoners. But longer prison sentences haven’t solved the problem of violent crime; America’s murder rate is still three times higher than the rate in any of these nations.

Just say no to the police. When cops request your consent to pat you down, peek inside your backpack or purse, or search your car, you have the right to decline. When they have a warrant or other legal cause to search, like at an airport, they don’t have to ask. Too many Americans—especially in communities of color—are scared to death of the police. Go to www.aclu.org/police/gen/14528res20040730.html to learn your rights if you are stopped by the police.

Don’t be a professional snitch. If you have information about a violent or property crime, call the police. Witnessing is fine. But snitches get paid for tattling either in cash or with a break in their own prosecution. They make untrustworthy witnesses. Snitches are responsible for almost half the wrongful convictions of people who were later found to be innocent.

Talk up the trades. Retail drug selling pays about as much as working at McDonald’s. As the book Freakonomics pointed out, that’s why most drug dealers live with their moms. Many dealers would prefer a more lucrative—and safer—line of work. People who don’t see themselves as “college material” and might otherwise end up on the street should be encouraged to get training for a blue-collar trade. See www.reentrypolicy.org/resources/links for information.

Let accused people know the evidence against them. There are very few discovery requirements in criminal law. Many defendants in criminal cases don’t learn who the witnesses are—or even get copies of police reports—until the day of the trial. “Open discovery” laws like one Ohio recently introduced will enable criminal defendants to see the state’s evidence against them before trial. See www.ohioopendiscovery.com.

Listen to hip-hop. No other aspect of pop culture has considered as carefully, and as personally, the costs and benefits of the American punishment regime. Members of the hip-hop nation often come from the most dangerous communities and have a vested interest in safety. They help us understand that treating people who have messed up with love and dignity is, for law-abiding citizens, an act of self-interest and community safety. Visit www.allhiphop.com or www.hiphopcaucus.org to learn about the political side of hip-hop.

Reprinted from the venerable progressive political magazine The Nation (Nov. 16, 2009). “Ten Things” is a monthly Nation feature intended as a “do-it-yourself opinion and action device.” Conceived by Walter Mosley with research by Rae Gomes. www.thenation.com