What Should Prison Reform Look Like?

There is a lot of talk these days about fiscal responsibility and accountability.  This must include a reform of the criminal justice system, specifically prisons.  They are hugely expensive and inefficient, and they do not have a great success rate.  American Thinker was contacted by Pat Nolan to discuss the need for reforming these agencies.

Mr. Nolan is a former California state legislator who is Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation and belongs to the conservative criminal justice reform movement Right on Crime.  He knows firsthand what it is like to be incarcerated.  He told American Thinker, "Everyone in my family and all of our neighbors had been victims of crime.  I came from a family that was pretty pro-police.  I was very much the 'we need more prisons' type.  This changed when I saw prison from the other side of the bars." 

In 1993, Nolan was indicted on seven counts of corruption that included accusations of taking money to help a phony shrimp-processing business – and no, it was not for Forrest Gump.  Although maintaining his innocence, he took a plea to avoid the risk of a long separation from his family.  He was sentenced to thirty-three months in prison for racketeering. 

The reason prison reform has become a hot-button issue for Nolan: "I think the first obligation of government is to keep us safe.  We need prisons to house people that are a danger to us: rapists and murderers.  But we have overused them in locking others up.  They are just like other parts of government that keep expanding at a great cost to the American taxpayer.  It has become a huge government bureaucracy."

He has a point: budgeted this year will be $6.9 billion for the Bureau of Prisons, with substantial increases every year going forward.  Nolan argues that this money can be used for better purposes, such as building a wall with Mexico to keep the drugs out, counterterrorism, and victim services. 

It is obvious that prosecutors and the threat of going to jail have become very abusive and intimidating.  Nolan gives two examples that hammer the point home.  Lobster fisherman in the U.S. received a sentence of eight years.  Their crime: shipping their catch in improper containers.  Furthermore, they were sentenced not under a U.S. law, but another country's law. 

More compelling to Nolan was the case of the renowned guitar maker Gibson.  They were accused of violating the Lacey Act, which bars importation of wildlife or plants if it breaks the laws of the country of origin.  Fish and Wildlife bureaucrats claim that, because Indian workers did not finish the ebony and rosewood used to make the guitars, it broke Indian law.  They neglected to consider that the Indian government approved the shipment of the wood.   Even though Gibson offered its full cooperation, SWAT teams were deployed, seizing computers and roughing up employees. 

Nolan commented, "This abusive treatment of a legitimate business like Gibson is not an isolated incident.  Small businesses have been similarly raided and their officers imprisoned.   This is not a search for truth, but an immoral attempt at extortion to win convictions. The lobster fisherman received longer sentences than some true criminals, and federal commandos raided Gibson, not because they posed a physical threat, but because the American government decided that it violated India's labor laws.  Even looking at drug offenders, only 14% of half of the people in federal prisons for a drug crime were major traffickers, while others were small fish."

He is hoping Attorney General Sessions will use Texas as an example.  Since 2007, Texas has canceled prison expansion plans, cut its inmate population, closed three prison facilities, and saved billions of dollars, some of which went into drug treatment including in-prison addiction treatment and halfway houses.  Texas, now the poster child for criminal justice reform, has encouraged other states to follow suit, specifically Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Utah, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and South Carolina. 

Nolan summarized his mission: "[w]e need to be more selective as to who goes to prison and rethink how we spend money on programs to reduce recidivism.  The power to imprison is one of the most severe authorities we cede to government.  The lives of incarcerated people are not their own: they cannot choose where to live, with whom to associate, when to eat, or what to do with their time.

"Because it carries such harsh sanctions, criminal law has always been reserved for morally reprehensible acts such as murder, rape, arson, and robbery.  Lets take our power back, while saving taxpayer's money that can be used for better programs that will actually keep Americans safe."

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

There is a lot of talk these days about fiscal responsibility and accountability.  This must include a reform of the criminal justice system, specifically prisons.  They are hugely expensive and inefficient, and they do not have a great success rate.  American Thinker was contacted by Pat Nolan to discuss the need for reforming these agencies.

Mr. Nolan is a former California state legislator who is Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation and belongs to the conservative criminal justice reform movement Right on Crime.  He knows firsthand what it is like to be incarcerated.  He told American Thinker, "Everyone in my family and all of our neighbors had been victims of crime.  I came from a family that was pretty pro-police.  I was very much the 'we need more prisons' type.  This changed when I saw prison from the other side of the bars." 

In 1993, Nolan was indicted on seven counts of corruption that included accusations of taking money to help a phony shrimp-processing business – and no, it was not for Forrest Gump.  Although maintaining his innocence, he took a plea to avoid the risk of a long separation from his family.  He was sentenced to thirty-three months in prison for racketeering. 

The reason prison reform has become a hot-button issue for Nolan: "I think the first obligation of government is to keep us safe.  We need prisons to house people that are a danger to us: rapists and murderers.  But we have overused them in locking others up.  They are just like other parts of government that keep expanding at a great cost to the American taxpayer.  It has become a huge government bureaucracy."

He has a point: budgeted this year will be $6.9 billion for the Bureau of Prisons, with substantial increases every year going forward.  Nolan argues that this money can be used for better purposes, such as building a wall with Mexico to keep the drugs out, counterterrorism, and victim services. 

It is obvious that prosecutors and the threat of going to jail have become very abusive and intimidating.  Nolan gives two examples that hammer the point home.  Lobster fisherman in the U.S. received a sentence of eight years.  Their crime: shipping their catch in improper containers.  Furthermore, they were sentenced not under a U.S. law, but another country's law. 

More compelling to Nolan was the case of the renowned guitar maker Gibson.  They were accused of violating the Lacey Act, which bars importation of wildlife or plants if it breaks the laws of the country of origin.  Fish and Wildlife bureaucrats claim that, because Indian workers did not finish the ebony and rosewood used to make the guitars, it broke Indian law.  They neglected to consider that the Indian government approved the shipment of the wood.   Even though Gibson offered its full cooperation, SWAT teams were deployed, seizing computers and roughing up employees. 

Nolan commented, "This abusive treatment of a legitimate business like Gibson is not an isolated incident.  Small businesses have been similarly raided and their officers imprisoned.   This is not a search for truth, but an immoral attempt at extortion to win convictions. The lobster fisherman received longer sentences than some true criminals, and federal commandos raided Gibson, not because they posed a physical threat, but because the American government decided that it violated India's labor laws.  Even looking at drug offenders, only 14% of half of the people in federal prisons for a drug crime were major traffickers, while others were small fish."

He is hoping Attorney General Sessions will use Texas as an example.  Since 2007, Texas has canceled prison expansion plans, cut its inmate population, closed three prison facilities, and saved billions of dollars, some of which went into drug treatment including in-prison addiction treatment and halfway houses.  Texas, now the poster child for criminal justice reform, has encouraged other states to follow suit, specifically Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Utah, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and South Carolina. 

Nolan summarized his mission: "[w]e need to be more selective as to who goes to prison and rethink how we spend money on programs to reduce recidivism.  The power to imprison is one of the most severe authorities we cede to government.  The lives of incarcerated people are not their own: they cannot choose where to live, with whom to associate, when to eat, or what to do with their time.

"Because it carries such harsh sanctions, criminal law has always been reserved for morally reprehensible acts such as murder, rape, arson, and robbery.  Lets take our power back, while saving taxpayer's money that can be used for better programs that will actually keep Americans safe."

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

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