Gingrich, Van Jones: Prisons Failing America

Image: Gingrich, Van Jones: Prisons Failing America

Thursday, 22 May 2014 08:09 AM

By Melissa Clyne

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The American prison system is an antiquated "human, social and financial disaster" that needs to be forced into the 21st century, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, a former Obama administration official, wrote in a commentary on CNN's website.

Gingrich and Jones — co-hosts of CNN’s "Crossfire" program — advocate a complete overhaul of the billion-dollar U.S. prison system industry. 

"We need a radical strategy of replacement of these huge bureaucracies that lack any meaningful oversight," they wrote.

Nearly 7 million Americans are incarcerated, on parole or probation — one in every 108 people — a figure that exceeds the combined populations of Los Angeles and Chicago. One in 35 Americans live under some form of correctional supervision.

Gingrich and Jones cite online education and training programs available at minimal cost that offer inmates the chance to "interrupt the cycle of poverty, a failing education system, crime and incarceration."

"Unfortunately, the current corrections bureaucracy has embraced none of this innovation — in part because it is captive to the prison guards' unions or the private prison lobby, and in part because it lacks any incentives or sufficient competition based on the right metrics," they wrote.

While statistics show that inmates who earn a GED in prison are "substantially less likely" to return, the system operates counter intuitively, according to Gingrich and Jones.

"At most prisons … inmates would never be allowed to spend eight hours a day working on educational courses and are instead forced to mill about their cells with little or nothing to occupy their time," they wrote.

Technology "should completely transform the corrections and criminal justice systems," according to Gingrich and Jones, citing as an example a computer science initiative for urban youth in Oakland, Calif., dubbed a "hackathon." One of the participants came up with an app to remind people of their court dates.

"It's sad, but in an age when the dentist's office calls automatically to remind us of appointments, shouldn't the court system do that as well if it prevents kids from spending time in jail?" Gingrich and Jones wrote.

The "Crossfire" co-hosts suggest offering wardens a financial incentive to reduce recidivism rates for inmates leaving their prisons. In California, they say, more than 65 percent of prisoners return within three years, costing taxpayers an average of $47,000 annually for each one.

"Such incentives would spark dramatically more innovation and investment in rehabilitation, job training and job placement programs for prisoners," Gingrich and Jones wrote. "That would be a revolutionary change from prison administrators' current incentives, which are often to keep as many people in custody as possible."

Secondly, "real market competition that rewards success at every step of the process — in probation and parole offices as well as prisons" is needed, they said.

"That doesn't just mean privatizing prisons or rewarding probation services with the same failed metrics. We need competition of methods and ideas based on the right criteria: When we send prisoners home, do they have the skills to reintegrate in their communities as working, law-abiding citizens? Or do they end up coming back?"

Drastic measures need to be deployed, they wrote, because society is suffering by the current system’s archaic model.

They cite an NAACP statistic that one in three black males born in the United States will likely spend some time behind bars. For Hispanic males, the chances are one in six; whites are one in 25.

Despite all the money and resources poured into the system, one of four prisoners returns to prison within three years of being released.

To keep non-violent offenders from becoming violent, career criminals, there needs to be alternative punishment and rehabilitation, according to Gingrich and Jones.

"Almost any activity to which we might sentence low-level offenders — apprenticeship programs, school, literacy or computer science boot camps, community service — would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than sticking them idle in prison with hardened criminals," they wrote.

States such as Mississippi and Hawaii have begun taking steps to route nonviolent offenders to community supervision or other forms of oversight. In New York City, a "social impact bond" pays investors based on savings from a decline in recidivism. The bond finances prisoner rehab programs run by a nonprofit.

"These measures keep violent offenders off the streets and lesser offenders out of prison, where too often the only education they receive is how to become a more hardened criminal," according to Gingrich and Jones.

There are "countless similar reforms" that could change the current corrections bureaucracy, and innovation should be targeted not just at prisons but probation and parole too, according to the "Crossfire" co-hosts. The way it stands, "tight budgets" have led to the slashing of rehab programs and, without them, prison populations will continue to soar.

Fundamental reform would benefit every American by ensuring that the worst offenders remain behind bars while those capable of doing better get the skills to learn how to do so, according to Gingrich and Jones.

"When a typical bureaucracy does its job this badly, it wastes money, time and paper. The corrections bureaucracy, in failing to correct the large majority of inmates in its charge, not only wastes money but also wastes lives, families and entire cities."

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