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July 23, 2008 -- Toronto Star (CN ON)

Has 'Mass Incarceration' Failed?

By Betsy Powell

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

With new laws in Canada that will put more people away, for longer -- in jail and prison systems where rehabilitative programs are unavailable or difficult to access -- the cost of jailing is about to go up. If the aim is to reduce crime, Michigan is proof otherwise. And the cost is more than dollars.

DETROIT -- On 16 hectares once used by Chrysler to house automobiles sits Ryan Road's best-kept property, more than a dozen buildings bordered by four-metre fences topped with coils of razor wire and five gun towers.

Surrounding Ryan Correctional Facility, on Detroit's east side, are abandoned houses with plywood-covered windows and padlocked doors. Inside the facility, Donald Larson is serving a life sentence for brokering a cocaine deal set up by a police informant.He has been behind bars since his arrest in 1992. His son, just 5 at the time, just graduated as a sophomore year at college.

It was his first offence. Still, the judge had no choice but to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of life in jail after a jury found Larson guilty.

Responding to law enforcement lobbying in the `70s and `80s and the perception that drug-fuelled crime was out of control, politicians across the United States enacted tough sentencing laws believing they would snare major drug dealers and deter drug use while showing the public they were being tough on crime.

Michigan's mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, including the so-called "650-Lifer" law that locked up Larson, were viewed as the harshest in the nation.

Today, Michigan is lock-up central. It has 50,000 inmates -- Canada, with more than three times the population, has 32,000 -- and 50 correctional facilities, 35 built since 1985.

But the state's "mass incarceration experiment" has achieved none of its stated objectives, says Laura Sager of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

"The dividends were broken families and broken communities not less crime."

Michigan's bloated prison population costs taxpayers $2 billion a year, more than the state spends on higher education, at $1.7 billion. Michigan is No. 1 in the nation in the proportion of its $9.8 billion state budget -- 20 per cent -- spent on corrections.

If the goal of locking up more people is to increase safety than Michigan "should be Shangri-la," said Sager in an interview in a tiny FAMM office in Lansing, the state capital 150 kilometres west of Detroit.

Yet Michigan's violent crime rate in 2006 was 562 per 100,000 people, according to the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending. Detroit alone had 400 homicides last year.

By comparison, Minnesota has an extremely low incarceration rate -- 176 per 100,000 -- and a violent crime rate (in 2006) of 312 per 100,000. Michigan's violent crime rate was 17.6 per cent higher than the national average; its incarceration rate is 22 per cent higher than the national average.

But today many states, including Michigan, are reversing tough-on-crime policies that have put one in 100 adults in America behind bars -- the Land of the Free has a higher level of imprisonment than China or Russia. In 2007, states spent more than $49 billion on corrections, up from $11 billion 20 years earlier.

There is growing recognition that public dollars should be diverted to services and programs that address the social and root causes of crime, such as counselling for drug addicts and creating opportunities for at-risk youth.

"Many cash-strapped states are embracing a view once dismissed as dangerously naive: It costs far less to let some felons go free than to keep them locked up," the Washington Post reported last month (may). This is happening at a time when Canadian politicians are enacting more mandatory sentences -- including lengthier sentences for drug offences.

If mandatory minimums were intended to target drug kingpins, they failed abysmally, casting "such a wide net that low-level addicts and couriers and people very much at the bottom of the drug trade are swept in a wide net and sent to prison for decades for really what is very minor activity," says Sager.

Larson doesn't suggest his crime of 16 years ago was minor. But he says he was no drug kingpin and argues a just sentence would have been five to seven years.

"They stole my life," says Larson, a tall, well-spoken man with bright blue eyes and a moustache. He sits on a plastic chair inside a visitor room at Ryan wearing a blue uniform with orange stripes, his inmate numbers written in white down the leg.

Larson, 47, has never surfed the Internet. He can only dream about the lamb chops he once loved to eat in Greek Town. Since his arrest on Aug. 26, 1992, the only meat he has consumed comes in boxes marked "For institutional use only."

Sixteen years ago Larson was just over a month away from opening up his own gym franchise and owed contractors money. But he $7,000 on one trip to Las Vegas, making him vulnerable to the repeated overtures of a drug-dealer turned police informant who offered cocaine at a discount. He bought 2,000 grams -- 2 kilos -- acting as a middleman intending to turn it over to two buyers and make some quick bucks to cover his debts.

"They wanted to bust me because I had met his connection one time for like 10 minutes and the police wanted me to snitch on that guy with the informant," he says. He wouldn't co-operate so they said "okay have a nice life and turned my case over to the state which carries the life sentence." Federally he would have only got two to five years.

While inside prison, Larson paid for correspondence courses and got his degree in business management. He also earned certification as a fitness trainer, nutritionist.and tutored other inmates. He wonders why taxpayers continue to spend roughly $32,000 a year to keep him locked up "when I could be out paying taxes and supporting my family."

Since legislators overturned the law in 1998, some 650 Lifers have seen their sentences commuted, depending on when they were originally sentenced. Last year the parole board decided Larson's bid for release had "no merit." He is now eligible for parole in October 2009.

"I can't even do all the stuff that I've done and not get recognition or get out somewhat early."

He's shocked that Canada's Conservative government is proposing new minimum sentences for a range of drug offences, including an automatic one-to-two year sentence for someone convicted "with aggravating factors" for trafficking more than 3 kilograms.

"It's a bad thing. You guys can't go that way."

FAMM's intense lobbying helped to put a human face on the people languishing behind bars, prompting Michigan lawmakers to ease their mandatory minimum rules.

"Oddly enough, it wasn't about the money (cost of incarceration), although it was significant. The people knew these laws had overreached," says Sager. "There were also people of conscience on both sides of the aisle who were willing to say `We made a mistake. These laws have created a worse problem than we anticipated.'"

They included a former Republican governor of Michigan, William G. Milliken, who said passing mandatory minimum drug sentences was the biggest mistake of his administration. "I believed then it was the right response to an insidious and growing drug problem. I have since come to realize that the provisions of the law have led to terrible injustices and that signing it was a mistake -- an overly punishing and cruel response...," he wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Detroit Free Press in 2002.

Yet there are opponents who say slashing corrections costs by reducing sentences will "put public safety at risk."

"Releasing felons back onto our streets through lower penalties isn't the answer," Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, a Republican, says in a posting on his web site. Senate Republicans say privatizing prison services such as medical care and transportation can save up to $200 million a year.

Patricia Caruso, a long-time prison warden and now director of Michigan Department of Corrections, can see "both sides" the debate.

She recalls seeing family members of people killed by a parolee. "When you look people in the eye whose kids were the same age as mine were murdered by this animal you understand that you really get a sense of the other side."

Two years ago, for instance, a parolee named Patrick Selepak killed three innocent people, including the torture killing of a man and his pregnant wife, and another man. The parole board, responding to the public outcry, responded immediately. It later turned out he had been mistakenly released from prison.

"Our population went up by 500 prisoners in a month," says Caruso. "When someone you voted to parole who you thought wouldn't be a menace does something like that you question everything that comes in front of you."

Still, "a lot of people have come to the conclusion that we're not being tougher on crime by spending so much money locking people up. The problem is when you work at making progress towards that, someone can always point to something bad that happens. The fear factor plays a really significant role in the debate and it doesn't always belong to one political party."

There are conservative voices in Michigan calling for cost-savings to be achieved through cuts to the inmate population. Kenneth M. Braun, a budgetary and fiscal analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy -- described by the Detroit News as normally a conservative ally -- - last year endorsed Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's recommended changes in sentencing for about 230 crimes. "The critical component is reducing the time for those convicted of non-violent offences," he wrote. Unfortunately, Republicans last summer "dug in their heels against genuine spending reform," Braun stated

Sager understands some of the reluctance is political.

The recession has ravaged Lansing and much of Michigan. In the capitol, bulldozers rake vast empty fields where giant auto assembly plants once stood.

General Motors was "everything" and provided high wages even to people without formal education. The explosive growth in prison spending coincided with the auto sector's decline in the Rust Belt, notes Sager.

Jobs are at stake if felons are released and prisons are closed. One-third of state employees, 17,000, work in the prison system. In 2007, Michigan's unemployment rate hit its highest level in 14 years.

Closing prisons in rural communities that depend on them economically is "a tough political question," says Sen. Michael "Mickey" Switalski sitting in his office across the street from the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing.

"You've got a massive investment in the local community, roads, sewers, to support the facility, jobs...a lot of people work in the prison (and in a) tough economy is this the time to lay off all these people? No, it's horrible, devastating for the community," says Switalski, a Democrat from Roseville, a town across the river from Windsor. He volunteers at a women's prison as a teacher.

"Is that what prisons should be about? It should be about keeping the public safe, about reforming people, not about jobs' programs. You can't separate that. Once you create it, it's going to try to preserve itself."

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