Rev. Marilyn Kendrix: Connecticut Must Do Better To End Hyper-Incarceration, New Haven Register Op-Ed
“We live in a disposable world.” Thus says Todd Young, one graduate of college program at the maximum security prison at Sing Sing. .
Mr. Young maintains that America has become a society where we throw things out – old appliances, old computers, old cell phones, old furniture, old clothes. When we are finished with them or tired of them or they are not quite working the way we think they should, we throw them out. And he suggests that this is true for human beings as well.
He is referring to our nation’s prisons, and I could not agree more.
The United States holds in its prisons and jails, state and federal, a combined total of 2.3 million people. That comes to one in every 99 adults behind bars. This number would make sense if America were a society where rampant crime was a real problem, but that is not the case. It was not the case when this meteoric rise began in the 1980s and it is even less the case today. The cause of our nation’s race to incarcerate was and continues to be a mostly failed policy called the War on Drugs.
The numbers of incarcerated people in Connecticut are just as unsettling. Over the past 30 years, Connecticut’s inmate population rose from 3,800 prisoners in our state system to the current level of 16,500 today.
This rise was due primarily to the arrest, conviction and sentencing of large numbers of low-level drug offenders. In 1980, there were 41,000 drug offenders in prisons and jails nationally. By 2011, that number had increased to 498,600, an increase of over 1,000 percent.
At the same time that our nation and our state were jailing exorbitant numbers of people for non-violent drug offenses – activities that should have been responded to as a public health crisis – the length of sentences for these kinds of offenses was increased to an extent unheard of in other industrialized nations around the world.
In addition, in the 1990s, laws were passed here in Connecticut, in a rush to be seen as ‘tough of crime,’ to assure that most of these prisoners would serve their entire draconian sentences. More people going in for much longer periods of time and serving their entire draconian sentences created the system of hyper incarceration that we have today.
While all these numbers would have been enough to spur me into some kind of action, I think that as a Christian minister, I was most horrified by the unbelievable lack of forgiveness for folks coming out of prison, allegedly having paid their debt to society.
Locked out of most housing, excluded from most public assistance including food stamps, ineligible for federal student loans and unable to secure employment due to criminal background checks that continue to show convictions, no matter how long ago, many of these people find that the most rational thing for them to do is re-offend and go back to prison.
Until I awoke to this appalling system of injustice I would have maintained the America is a nation of second chances, but the situation in our criminal justice system has led me to agree with Mr. Young. We are a throwaway nation and the people that we are throwing away are our most vulnerable, most marginalized, poorest and most disadvantaged.
All these facts led me to partner with an amazing group of people, The Malta Justice Initiative, to write a new book, The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Hijacked the American Dream. This book is aimed at three communities – the business community, the academic community and the faith community. It is our hope that by engaging good people of conscience around the state to the facts on the ground about hyper-incarceration, we will be able to turn the tide on what has become an untenably expensive system for Connecticut.
Our tax dollars are going to perpetuate this system to the tune of $1 billion per year, all told. One in every 8 state employees is an employee of the Department of Correction.
And once again in a time of elections, we can hear candidates attempting to go for the quick vote by tapping into an unreasonable fear of a non-existent crime wave in Connecticut.
This system has cost us much too much in term of dollars but the cost in human lives is uncountable. It is time to do better as a state. It is time to do better as a nation. It is time to do better as a society.
Rev. Marilyn B. Kendrix, associate pastor at the Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, is a member of the Malta Justice Initiative