Saturday, April 13, 2019

GateHouse: In the criminal justice system things are worse than they seem

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
April 10, 2019
In 2009, President Barrack Obama appointed Preet Bharara as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. President Donald Trump unceremoniously fired him in 2017.
Bharara has written a book, as has just about anyone who has been hired, fired or lambasted by Trump on Twitter.
John Pfaff, an author himself, and law professor at Fordham University, recently wrote a review of Bharara’s book, “Doing Justice,” for the Washington Monthly.
Pfaff suggested that the thesis of Bharara’s book can be found near the book’s end, where Bharara writes the criminal justice system is ”(A)n inquiry fairly conducted, and accusation rightly made, a judgment properly rendered.” Pfaff pulls no punches when he responds to Bharara’s thesis, “This is a stunningly sunny take on our criminal justice system, optimistic to the point of being dangerously misleading.”
Are things in the criminal justice system really that bleak?
Here are four things to consider:
- Incarceration rates;
- Prison conditions;
- Oppressive community supervision; and
- Collateral consequences of crime.
First, incarceration rates rose fivefold between 1970 and 2008. Relative to population, America now locks up seven times as many people as France, 11 times as many as the Netherlands and 15 times as many as Japan.
America imprisons more people for longer periods of time than at any time in history. There is no question that some recent reforms have the potential to reduce prison population. However, insistence on locking up people for non-violent offenses like theft, drug possession and nuisance crimes insures that the system will continue to waste money and waste lives.
Prisons are doing little to deal with recidivism. We know of truly deplorable prisons and jails like Rikers Island in New York and the state prison system in Alabama, but there are systemic problems across the country.
Prisons have become de facto mental health facilities. There are estimates that as many as 56 percent of state inmates have some mental health malady and a significant amount of those inmates have severe mental health problems.
Local jails across the country are loaded with pretrial detainees. People charged with a crime who cannot post bond. Those individuals, not yet convicted of a crime, languish in jail because they are too poor to pay for their release. Those sitting in jail awaiting trial cost taxpayers millions of dollars every day.
After an offender is released from prison the grip of the state is barely loosened. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Justice, one in 38 Americans is under some form of community supervision. Whether house arrest, parole or probation the government can keep close ties on offenders long after they have been released from prison.
Most of those who return to prison do so not because they committed a new crime, but because they violated a condition of community supervision. For instance, an offender on parole who fails to report goes back to prison. A probationer who drinks alcohol goes to jail; an offender on house arrest who leaves her house gets thrown in the hooskal. Who pays the price for an offender who drinks or leaves his house? Taxpayers.
The cost of incarceration in this country, fueled in part by technical parole and probation violators, is $81 billion per year.
Finally, even when a former offender has served his time in prison and successfully complied with parole while on the street they remain hamstrung by the system.
The collateral consequences of crime may keep convicted individuals from getting a driver’s license, housing, employment, a professional license, voting and other entitlements available to “law abiding citizens.” According to The Heritage Foundation, there are an estimated 46,000 state and federal laws that make it difficult for former offenders to get on with their life.
So what happens when a former offender is thwarted at every turn - no work and no place to live, no driver’s license? That is easy to figure out.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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