In the latest of his many considerable flip-flops, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called on Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Kathe Tuttman – whom he appointed to the bench when he was Massachusetts governor – to resign. Tuttman is at the center of a major controversy over her decision to allow a murderer to be released near the end of his sentence, despite a pending charge of assaulting a corrections officer. The prisoner, Daniel Tavares Jr., went on to kill a newlywed couple. As horrible a situation as this is, it’s hardly a time for the scapegoating and politicking that Romney has taken up.
Rather than recognize the ineptitude of a prison system that simply holds prisoners for 16 years without any meaningful effort at reforming them, Romney is busy pointing the finger of blame. Such shortsighted, irresponsible attitudes are common among lawmakers, and they create an atmosphere that debilitates progress in prison reform and ignores the fact that our country’s trend of mass arrests and mass incarceration does little to make our society safer.
America’s incarceration rate is the highest among developed countries. The number of people in our prisons has quadrupled since 1980 – not because there are so many more violent offenders, but simply because we have criminalized even trivial offenses in the “War on Drugs.” Because of stricter drug laws, police began arresting more people for drug-related crimes, leading to more inmates in our prisons, more instances of overcrowding and more tax dollars funneled into incarceration. By 2003, drug arrests accounted for 68 percent of prison population growth and 20 percent of the total prison population nationwide. And we aren’t safer for it.
With prisons overcrowded by nonviolent offenders, it’s no wonder that violent inmates leave prison without having received the type of rehabilitation they need. Rather than incarcerating every person who breaks the law, the government should use alternatives for non-violent offenders like drug courts, mental health courts and community service. Drug courts are judicial systems that identify, monitor and treat drug offenders through probation, social services and clinical treatment. In 2005, the Governmental Accountability Office reported that the drug court program helped to substantially lower re-arrest and conviction rates among the program’s graduates. If the government employed methods like the drug courts, mass incarceration and overcrowding in prisons could be significantly curtailed.
However, our prison’s problems reach far beyond overcapacity. Romney claims that Tavares should not have been released from prison early because he is a violent man incapable of living in society. But as former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger has said, Romney is “making a political calculation, and (Tuttman is) an easy target.” The real problem lies in our prison systems’ continuing emphasis on punishment instead of rehabilitation.
Incarcerating criminals for extended periods of time does not automatically mean that they will change for the better – and no, this doesn’t mean we should simply kill them. Statistically, the current system of incarceration does very little to deter repeat offenders. Some legislatures are calling for harsher prisons and longer sentences, but how will crueler prisons create kinder prisoners?
Rather than institute a more barbaric prison system, the government should direct more resources to providing the help and support services all inmates need if they are to have a chance at rehabilitation. Today, about 60 percent of criminals commit another crime within three years of their release: It’s obvious that our lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key strategy is not working to reform inmates or protect our society. Providing mental health services as well as substance abuse treatment and helping to build up job skills are the only ways to ensure inmates are prepared to live productive, crime-free lives upon release.
And that is the goal, after all.