The Federal Budget and Criminal Justice

On April 5 Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chair of the House Budget Committee, released a budget designed by himself which will be used as a significant guidepost for what the House will work from to craft a budget for Fiscal Year 2012 (FY12).

More on that later, since the budget for Fiscal Year 2011 (FY11) has yet to be determined even though we have already lived through more than half of that fiscal year.

When we look at what the budget means for criminal justice, we do so with an eye for what it could mean for downsizing the system.  It’s one of the places we actually hope to see some smart restructuring and cutting.

Cutting the budget for prison growth can help increase more restorative practices.  It makes fiscal sense, and smart alternatives to incarceration have the ability to meet the needs of victims and restore individuals to their communities.

Unfortunately, this is not the budget outlook we see.  The President’s request for FY12 would increase the funding for the Bureau of Prisons (supporting a policy of incarceration rather than effective alternatives).  If cuts happen at the level of request from the House of Representatives, programs for the reintegration of ex-offenders and mentoring children of incarcerated parents will be eliminated.

Since 1980 the criminal justice system has grown from 24.000 people housed to 210,000 incarcerated.  During the same time, costs have increased from $333 million to $6 billion.  That’s a 700% increase in population and 1700% increase in spending.

This hasn’t worked.  Prison as punishment has increased recidivism (returning to prison).  Nationally, the recidivism rate remains around 65%.

Instead, policies can be shaped to reduce imprisonment and crime simultaneously by responding to the need people experience after the crime happens.  Some states are doing this already in order to reduce costs (fiscal costs and human costs) of crime and imprisonment.  For example:

  • Legislation passed in Texas in 2003 requiring all drug possession offenders with less than a gram of drugs be sentenced to probation instead of jail time;
  • Legislation adopted in Oklahoma that will expand eligibility for community sentencing and increase use of parole for nonviolent offenders;
  • Mississippi passed legislation in 2008 that reduces time-served for certain categories of non-violent offenders.

As people of faith, we should also ask ourselves if such a massive prison system (2.3 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States) is a faithful response to crime, wrongdoing, or victimization.

Individuals in prison rarely are held accountable for the human consequences of their crime, and the majority of those incarcerated are actually nonviolent offenders in the first place.  The need for public health services for people with addictions and mental health needs is great.  Currently, U.S. prisons hold four times as many individuals with mental disabilities than do hospitals.

Stripped of family connection, accountability, education and sustainable work or training is compounded by lack of access to good jobs and federal assistance for food our housing make it incredibly difficult for people with convictions to return to society.

Because the system disproportionately incarcerates people of color despite similar crime rates, downsizing prisons would also mean stepping closer to addressing current racism  in the United States.

Your voices can change this!  In his FY12 request, President Obama had initially planned to restructure funding for a program which managed the contact incarcerated children under 18 have with adult persons.  Youth in adult facilities are significantly more likely to return to crime and to be sexually and physically abused while in prison.

The President’s request would have made states complying with better standards eligible for funding to support their programs.  States which had not yet complied would not have as much access.  The result could have been more resources funneled to states which already had the ability to help youth in adult facilities, and made it more difficult for states with less resources to put in safeguards for their youth inmates.

After individuals in the juvenile justice community spoke out against these changes, President Obama has committed to changing this restructuring policy.  This is one example of how your voices can help make good budget decisions!

Click here to send a letter to your member of Congress to ask  them to create a just budget!

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