Our BULGING prison population

25% of our global population is locked up in cages in the United States.  Imprisoned.  The United States is the world’s leader, locking up 2.2 million people currently. One in every thirty-five adults are under some form of correctional control (prison, jail, parole, or probation).  

Dan Satterberg, King County’s Elected Prosecutor, recently gave a TED talk about criminal justice reform.  He touched on issues that intersect with our criminal justice system:  addiction, mental health issues, domestic violence, and issues compounded by poverty and lack of opportunities.  He focused on the person behind the crime and the issues that can cause people to seek criminal activity.   

Satterberg also touched on the fiscal issue that over-incarcerating people creates on our already strapped government budgets.  We have never been safer, according to crime statistics, and yet we are locking up more and more people.  18,000 people are in prison in Washington state.  And we are at 100% capacity currently.  The legislature has denied pitches to build more prisons. 

In fact, as recently reported in the Seattle Times, Washington State is now paying private prisons in other states to house our prisoners at the price of $60 per day per inmate.  That is a LOT of money that could go to education, our homeless population, mental health facilities, resources for people who are coming out of our prisons, or other social justice projects.  

So what do we do?  What is the solution?  

I firmly believe that we send people away for longer than necessary.  Even the “violent offenders” (who often consist of a first time offender that did one violent act in his life and is now spending decades in prison).  We should be diverting first time offenders away from the system rather than pushing them inside concrete walls with other prisoners thereby often creating “career criminals.”   Most of my clients are first time offenders, people who spent their entire lives contributing to society, paying taxes, exceling at their jobs and careers, and creating families.  Suddenly they may find themselves accused of a crime they did not commit.  Or, they may have reacted to a volatile situation in a panicked state of fear, and in a way that they are now facing a decade or more of prison time for.   First time offenders may be guilty of a crime, but are they really the “dangerous criminals” that need to be locked up to truly protect society?  I’m not buying it.  The vast majority of people who are accused of a situational crime, one where a unique set of circumstances caused them to act in a way that is contradictory to the rest of their lifestyle and actions, will never again violate the law.  It was aberrant behavior that will never be repeated.  So should we lock these people up for years and years?   I don’t think so.  

Criminal acts have consequences – I think most people would agree that we must promote respect for our laws with a criminal justice system that punishes for criminal acts.  However, what should that punishment be?  How long should that punishment be?  Is there an absolute need for that punishment to consist of years of prison time?  Are there other options?  Is there a better way? 

I certainly think so.  I welcome your thoughts.  

Disclaimer (because I am a lawyer):  This post and any legal information is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice specific to you.  The general information is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney in your jurisdiction.  The attorney-client relationship is not established by this post.