Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sentencing Laws Are Unjust

Yesterday I heard news that the ninth circuit court of appeals had issued an order that would result in the state of California’s prison system having to release tens of thousands of prisoners before their sentences had expired. Prior to my own experience with the criminal justice system, such news would have appalled me. After more than nine months in Taft’s prison camp, I now see this social problem from a different, more informed perspective.

As a federal prisoner, the legal ruling will not have any influence on my own release date. The judicial order only applies to the state prison system. Yet the state of California’s prison system is similar in size to the federal prison system. My thoughts are that just as many people in federal prison could return to society early without threatening the public order, the same could be true in the California state system.

Obviously, some offenders are so dangerous that society has an interest in isolating them indefinitely. As I’ve served time in Taft’s prison camp, however, I’ve come to realize that our country has placed far too much emphasis on imprisonment. These places are limited resources, and taxpayers should demand that administrators use them effectively. They should confine people for as long as necessary, but not a day longer.

In the Taft prison camp, I served time with about 500 other prisoners. Many of them leave the prison every day to work on community projects. All of us serve time in an open environment, without a fence or physical boundary to contain us. We are here, serving our sentences on an honor system.

According to my rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation, taxpayers fund this prison’s operation with about $15,000 for every prisoner per year. Considering that administrators have classified to prisoners as posing no threat to society, the expenditure of confining so many seems a colossal waste of taxpayer resources.

In my case, I serve time for convictions related to securities fraud. I am scheduled for release in three months, and I have just over nine months of imprisonment behind me. Will society be any safer on account of my serving the additional three months?

My case, however, does not illustrate the absurdity of sentencing laws as well as other offenders. How about the man who was sentenced to serve ten years for a nonviolent drug conviction? He has served eight years while keeping a clean disciplinary record and educating himself. Does society receive any benefit from keeping him locked in a cage for another two years? More dramatically, how about my friend Michael who has served 22 years? He earned an undergraduate and a graduate degree, he has published books, and administrators allow him to travel into society to speak. Yet the sentence requires him to serve three more years. What’s the point? If he hasn’t learned his lesson or paid his debt to society after 21 years, is he supposed to learn it after serving three more years?

I suspect the state of California has the same absurd system of measuring justice by the number of years that pass. Just as I have noticed at Taft camp, however, I’m sure that a significant percentage of California prisoners could return to society without posing any threat at all. If a man has suffered the indignity of prison, served a considerable portion of his sentence, and used his time to reconcile with society, then those efforts to earn freedom ought to release. Mandating that they serve additional years in a crowded cage does not serve the interests of an enlightened society.

I would not have had this perspective if I had not served my own prison term, and I realize that some readers many think me biased. As a citizen and resident of California, however, it is my duty to report what I’ve seen. Were in a financial crisis and we’re wasting billions by confining people who no longer need confinement. Is it justice we want, or vengeance?

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