Our prison system does not provide a snapshot of crime in this country. It's a snapshot of policies and practices that are a combination of politically expedient, profit-driven, racist, and absent of larger strategy or meaning — to say nothing of being divorced from actual crime rates.
Take a recent announcement by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections of a new policy that will ban book donations to prisons and stop delivering letters to prisoners. Letters will be sent to a company that will scan them and return them, where prisoners will get them in digital form. Donated books will no longer be allowed. These moves are an attempt to stop the flow of contraband, but illustrate a system with narrow, even inhumane solutions to complex problems.
It's well-reported that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Pennsylvania has its own sorry track record; in fact, it exceeds national averages in the number of people imprisoned, according to the Prison Policy Institute — about 100,000 people are locked up, including in local jails. The majority are black and Hispanic.
Pennsylvania is also a leader in those serving life without parole: 5,346 people are serving that sentence, half of which are from Philadelphia. Of those serving life-without-parole terms, 65 percent are black — a rate 118 times higher than whites. More than half of lifers were 25 years old or younger when jailed.
Life without parole is a sentence that leaves no room for hope or for rehabilitation. The Abolitionist Law Project, in a recently released report, calls it "Death by Incarceration." While most are convicted of first-degree murder, many are sentenced for felony murder, which is a felony resulting in someone's death but didn't necessarily include intent to take a life. The minimum sentence for either crime is life without the possibility of parole. Others serving life terms include repeat drug offenders and battered women who killed their partners.
Many serving the sentence are elderly, decades older than the crimes they committed, and sick.
State Sen. Sharif Street has been pushing a bill, SB942, that would introduce the possibility of parole for life sentences. The bill could be voted out of committee next month. District Attorney Larry Krasner supports the bill.
But life without parole is just one area that requires reform.
What's needed is an honest and comprehensive look, not at prisons per se, but at our values: What do we expect from prisons ? Are we locking people up with the hope of rehabilitating them? Or are we warehousing the people who don't fit into a whitewashed society – blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, the mental ill, the addicted, and the poor?
The answers are critical not just because of their impact on criminal justice and on human lives, but the impact on budgets. The cost of locking up so many people is staggering: over $40,000 per prisoner per year in this state alone.
There are no easy fixes; change will involve local, state, and federal jurisdictions working together. The hardest challenge, though, will be to get out of the habit of using prisons as the place to shut our problems away and throw away the key.