Other’s opinion: U.S. incarceration binge needs to end

Published 8:18 am Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Even as the nation is roiled by tribalism and bitter partisanship, there are efforts to build common ground that are being quietly nurtured, sometimes where least expected. Criminal-justice reform is one such area. Faced with soaring prison costs and ever greater numbers of adults hampered by prison records, some Republicans and Democrats are seeking and finding reforms they can agree on. It is a development to be welcomed and nurtured.

U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., has become part of that effort, working for more than a year with Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., on a juvenile-justice reform bill that would restore some much-needed pragmatism and compassion to the way this country deals with youthful offenders. HR 1809 would shift the priority from detention and imprisonment to rehabilitation, second chances and skills that give juveniles a tangible path toward a productive, law-abiding life.

While the feds continue to spend money on the juvenile-justice system, it’s been well over a decade since Congress adopted new guidelines for those resources. That neglectful oversight has resulted in a continuation of outdated, even harmful practices that are both costly and ineffective, down to the needless shackling of pregnant juvenile offenders while giving birth.

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The bill rightly calls for strategies based on evidence and focused on outcomes, making for a better use of taxpayer funds. As Lewis said during a recent State Capitol panel discussion on criminal-justice reform, “We’re not going to incarcerate our way out of social pathologies. Let’s give kids, especially, a second chance. Let’s give them a skill.”

If that is a surprising stance for a self-described conservative, it is one that comes from acknowledging some hard fiscal realities that deserve wider recognition. The U.S. has been on an incarceration binge for years now, with little to show for it save a shameful waste of human capital and ever-rising prison costs. On average, 2 million young people a year under age 18 are arrested in the U.S. There are more than 1 million children in the juvenile-justice system now and nearly 200,000 in the adult system.

It’s true, of course, that some violent and pathological offenders may be beyond saving. But many others — particularly nonviolent juvenile offenders — can be redirected. As Lewis and others have found, there are ways to intervene in these young lives and teach skills that offer a better chance for a productive life while avoiding the exorbitant costs of prolonged incarceration.

The panel itself also merits praise. It was a byproduct of the Justice Action Network, a remarkable organization working across ideological lines to build common ground on criminal-justice reform. Along with Lewis, the panel featured DFL St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell in a thoughtful, civil exchange of ideas that was a welcome, if too-short, change from the usual lines-drawn approach seen these days. “Nothing has proven more wrong than more arrests equal more safety,” Carter said, following Lewis’ remarks. Schnell agreed, noting that as a young officer, “I measured success by the number of arrests. I came to believe I was wrong.”

Now, like Carter and Lewis, Schnell is looking for new ways to improve public safety that go beyond such failed strategies as “three strikes, you’re out,” which saddled this country with scores of geriatric prisoners and millions of ex-cons impossibly hampered by their felony records, often for nonviolent offenses committed decades earlier. Minnesota has done some work in this area on its own, but could use a stronger partnership with the federal government.

There will always be an element of punishment for crimes committed, but there must also be proportionality, especially where juvenile offenders are concerned. Once introduced to prison life, they become far more likely to drop out of school and reoffend.

Bills like the one sponsored by Lewis and Scott are a good start on a better path.

Star Tribune

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