Whether one is a fiscal conservative, a civil libertarian or an advocate for victims (or all three), agreement can be found on one issue: The manner in which we deal with those who violate our criminal laws is terribly wasteful, largely ineffective and oftentimes self-defeating.
We incarcerate a greater percentage of our population every year, spend more money on jails and prisons, and contribute to the destruction of families and individual lives – all without coming anywhere close to winning the "war on drugs," clearing gangs out of our cities, or reducing the incidence of domestic violence.
With over 1.7 million people in jails and prisons in the United States, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world (427 per 100,000 population). A majority of the more than 106,000 people now in federal penitentiaries are imprisoned for drug-related offenses. Even marijuana offenders are being incarcerated in federal prisons at greatly increasing rates; since 1990, an average of 3,677 people have been sentenced to prison by federal courts for marijuana offenses – almost double the number of a decade ago.
In Utah, our politicians have gleefully created new offenses and enhanced penalties, while ignoring what is required in the short-run to accomplish the long-term goals of providing some measure of justice to victims, saving taxpayers money, and returning released offenders to our community with the tools necessary to lead productive, law-abiding lives.
Under the leadership of Gary DeLand and Lane McCotter, the Utah Department of Corrections built a vast empire, with the number of inmates exploding from 1,624 in 1985 to 4,696 in 1997 (a 289% increase), and the budget, $54.86 million in 1988, skyrocketing to $148.9 million in 1997.
Those Administrations treated inmates and their families contemptuously, with medical staff who often ignored serious – sometimes life-threatening – physical problems and a mental health system in which mentally ill inmates were denied medications and subjected to medieval, barbaric treatment.
During the DeLand-McCotter years, dozens of severely mentally ill inmates were tied by their wrists and ankles to a flat aluminum board (in one instance, an inmate suffering from depression was "four-pointed" to "the board" for 85 consecutive days) or shackled and bound to a "restraint chair" (leading, in one instance, to the death of a badly decompensating schizophrenic young man).
After the disastrous years of the DeLandroids administering Utah?s corrections (more aptly, "exacerbations") system, Utah now has a golden opportunity, through the able leadership of Pete Haun, to define our goals in dealing with offenders (restitution, rehabilitation and restorative justice versus retribution, vengeance and further embitterment), then pursue them rationally, humanely, and cost-effectively.
Haun cannot do it alone, however. Our religious and civic leaders, our legislators, and the voters must call for, and support, constructive changes in our criminal justice system. No longer should taxpayers pay the bill (approximately $50,000 per inmate each year) for the boarding of inmates convicted of non-violent crimes. No longer should offenders be held for years without any training or education. And no longer should inmates be left idle while their victims are deprived of restituion.
With the full support of our community, Pete Haun can make a difference. We have the choices of gratuitous cruelty, or compassion for inmates, many of whom have known little compassion in their lives; the choice of offenders draining the public treasury, or many of them working to pay at least some of the costs of their board, room and therapy; and the choice of victims being denied any semblance of justice, or victims receiving significant restitution.
Changes in our corrections system can benefit everyone in our community – victims, offenders, families and taxpayers. But such changes will require courage by our politicians, support by the voters, and a long-term commitment by everyone to diminish our rage for punishment and increase our capacity for justice, compassion and rationality.